In a press statement yesterday announcing that he would not run for re-election to the Senate in 2014, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) foreshadowed a new investigation by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (“PSI”) concerning what he described as the IRS’s “failure” to police the use of undisclosed political money by tax-exempt organizations. As the long-time Chair of the PSI Subcommittee, he highlighted this issue as one of a handful of matters that PSI will train its guns on between now and the 2014 election.
Chairman Levin’s statement made clear that one of the issues PSI will tackle over the next two years is what he called “a growing blight on our political system that I believe I can help address: the use of secret money to fund political campaigns.” He added that in his view “our tax laws are supposed to prevent secret contributions to tax-exempt organizations for political purposes. My Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations needs to look into the failure of the IRS to enforce our tax laws and stem the flood of hundreds of millions of secret dollars flowing into our elections … .”
The PSI Subcommittee is known for conducting lengthy, thorough, and complex investigations that typically extend over many months or even years. Although, from the tenor of Chairman Levin’s statement, it is the IRS itself that is squarely in his crosshairs, typically the PSI Subcommittee would seek to take discovery from regulated organizations. If it does so in this case, that could raise significant First Amendment issues, particularly if the Subcommittee aims its often-used subpoena power at associations and outside groups that are active in the political process.
Generally, in the past, the “glass houses” effect has tended to temper congressional investigations of campaign finance. Each political party knows that its own side is vulnerable to scrutiny, and so neither party probes too deeply. There have been exceptions to that rule, however. And with Chairman Levin freed from worrying about his own re-election, the chances of a full-blown congressional investigation of the campaign finance system are somewhat higher than usual right now.