We predicted that Organizing for Action, the advocacy group that evolved out of the 2012 Obama campaign's supporter list, would cave on a policy of letting monied interests meet with the President. Today, it did — but only by amending its fundraising policies, not by ending the promise of a White House audience. The self-identified "most transparent administration in history" just got a tiny bit more transparent.
In a subtlety-laden opinion piece posted to CNN.com today, Jim Messina, Obama's 2012 campaign manager and now chairman of Organizing for Action (OFA), outlined the amendments to the group's plans. Here's what has changed and what hasn't in response to critiques, in Messina's words.
"Organizing for Action is an issue advocacy group, not an electoral one. We'll mobilize to support the president's agenda, but we won't do so on behalf of political candidates."
Critics attacked OFA for organizing as a 501(c)(4) under IRS code, allowing it to call for political action in the "promotion of social welfare." (A number of other organizations, on both sides of the political spectrum are similarly instantiated.) What Messina does in the passage above is underline that point. It's clear that OFA will mobilize in opposition to particular elected officials; it already has. The difference is in campaigns themselves. There's a fine legal line between attacking a candidate for office directly and saturating his district with TV ads and mail that harshly criticize an issue on which he's taken a positive stand. Of course, 501(c)(4)s can do the latter, and Messina doesn't rule it out.
"While Organizing for Action is a nonprofit social welfare organization that faces a lower disclosure threshold than a political campaign, we believe in being open and transparent. That's why every donor who gives $250 or more to this organization will be disclosed on the website with the exact amount they give on a quarterly basis. We have now decided not to accept contributions from corporations, federal lobbyists or foreign donors."
This is the biggest change in policy. No longer will companies with critical legislation awaiting the president's signature be able to dump hundreds of thousands of dollars into OFA seeking positive karma. Instead, their CEOs will have to, and the exact dollar figure will be released.
"[J]ust as the president and administration officials deliver updates on the legislative process to Americans and organizations across the ideological spectrum, there may be occasions when members of Organizing for Action are included in those updates. These are not opportunities to lobby -- they are briefings on the positions the president has taken and the status of seeing them through."
This is perhaps the most surprising statement. Messina says members of OFA will still be able to attend briefings with the president, including, presumably, those cehck-writing CEOs. Whether or not the administration is willing to risk the fall-out from such a move remains to be seen, but Messina doesn't rule it out.
As the Associated Press notes, CEOs who might be squeamish about the attention paid to OFA have another outlet for gaining an audience with Obama.
Corporations will still have an outlet to connect with the administration. Business Forward, a 3-year-old trade group that has organized meetings between businesses and Obama officials, has said it will ramp up its operations. The group is funded by corporate money and has received contributions from about 50 companies that pay $25,000 or $50,000 a year to be involved and participate in briefings between Obama administration officials and businesses.
Messina's clarification won't do much to shift donor opinion on OFA. Then again, that probably wasn't his goal in writing it. Instead, Messina hoped to release enough pressure so that OFA's plans could move forward. We'll know soon enough if it worked.