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Dec. 17, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER
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Rules of the Game: Shining a Light on Political 'Dark Money'

. Imposing new disclosure rules on noncharitable tax-exempt groups that are funded by a limited number of people. Ellen Aprill, a tax law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, argues that this would insulate broad-based social welfare groups from unwanted scrutiny but would shed more light on groups that rely on a few big donors. Aprill also favors taxing political activity by noncharitable tax-exempt groups.

. Require tax-exempt groups to disclose contributions and expenditures larger than $25,000, an idea favored by Donald B. Tobin, a law professor at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. (Like Aprill, Tobin would exempt charities.) Tobin also suggests allowing for external complaints regarding abuses of tax-exempt status and putting enforcement in the hands of an independent, nonpartisan commission made up of former IRS veterans.

. Create a joint enforcement mechanism between the FEC and the IRS, whose regulations do not match up so that political players fall between the cracks. Such interagency cooperation has plenty of precedents, argues Hill.  

Such ideas are not as dramatic as passing a Constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United v. FEC, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that opened the way for unlimited and undisclosed political spending. Nor are they as popular with watchdogs as matching low-dollar contributions with public funds, an idea that has generated renewed interest among reform advocates.

But while more-sweeping reforms may gain traction over the long haul, their short-term prospects are dim. Amending the Constitution is a quixotic quest at best. Public financing will be dismissed by Republicans out of hand as "taxpayer-funded" campaigns.

In the meantime, secret money is compounding public alarm over Citizens United. It's alarming enough to many voters that billionaire CEOs appear to be bankrolling politicians. Even worse is the prospect that most of these large contributions may never see the light of day. All the more reason for Congress to consider every avenue, small and large, on the hard road to transparency.

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