Peter Overby

Reform-minded Democrats have long held up "dark money" — political money that can't be traced to its source — as a symptom of what's wrong with politics in Washington. But while House Democrats this winter passed a bill to end the secrecy shielding donors behind unregulated dark money contributions, liberal activist groups now deploy those funds to boost the party's candidates in the 2020 elections.

Updated at 4:35 p.m. ET

White House lawyers communicated with the Treasury Department about how to handle House Democrats' request for President Trump's tax returns even before they made it, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Tuesday.

A new lawsuit by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, targets an obscure provision of campaign finance law.

At issue is loophole-closing language that restricts how much money lawmakers can accept from donors after Election Day as they seek to recoup loans they made to their campaigns.

The 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law puts a $250,000 limit on payments from postelection donors, even if the candidate lent more, and there's a 20-day deadline for donors to contribute. Cruz is suing the Federal Election Commission as enforcer of the provision.

As Democratic presidential hopefuls seek to grow the small-donor juggernaut that fueled the party's takeover of the House of Representatives last year, the Democratic National Committee is giving them a firm shove, offering slots in the presidential primary debates to candidates who build a broad fundraising base.

"I really believe that we're at our best when we're connecting with people," DNC chair Tom Perez told MSNBC recently. "That's how we won in 2018, and frankly that's how Barack Obama won in 2008. And that's exactly what I think this will incentivize."

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Presidential candidates have to file their first campaign finance reports at the end of this month. As NPR's Peter Overby reports, Democratic candidates are taking a tip from last year's congressional races and asking for small donations.

This story is published in partnership with The Center for Public Integrity

Rich businessman Wilbur Ross' promise to divest millions of dollars' worth of assets upon becoming Commerce Department secretary drew warm praise in 2017, even from Democrats.

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As Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand jumped into the Democratic presidential nomination contest, they staked out the same position against corporate campaign cash.

The government's partial shutdown has turned Washington's National Mall into a bleak place. Trash cans are overflowing, museums and historic sites are shuttered. Park Service rangers and Smithsonian employees are furloughed as the shutdown drags on.

It isn't your usual bill, the For The People Act introduced Friday by House Democrats. Also known as HR 1, symbolically their first legislation, it is a 571-page compendium of existing problems and proposed solutions in four political hot zones: voting, political money, redistricting and ethics.

A pledge to pass the bill was a common theme among Democratic House candidates last year.

"We heard loud and clear from the American people," Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., told reporters Friday. "They feel left out and locked out from their own democracy."

This year has been a dismal one for ethics in Washington. Even without a repeat of the 2017 tide of sexual harassment cases in Congress and not counting the results of the Mueller investigation, the D.C. "swamp" remains as stagnant as ever.

It was a year when President Trump pushed out three of his own Cabinet officers over ethics concerns: Secretary David Shulkin at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Secretary Ryan Zinke at Interior and Administrator Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency.

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In a case that could shed light on the finances of the secretive Trump Organization, a federal judge has signed orders to issue 30 subpoenas on behalf of the attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia in their lawsuit alleging that President Trump is profiting from foreign and state governments' spending at the Trump International Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C.

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A federal ethics agency is telling civil servants to avoid workplace talk about impeachment and #resistance for the next 705 days — until the day after Election Day 2020.

The memo from the Office of Special Counsel also warns federal employees not to engage in "strong criticism or praise of a presidential administration's policies and actions." The only presidential administration right now is President Trump's. The document was circulated to ethics officials across the government this week.

The midterm elections illuminated a gap in Republican fundraising. While wealthy conservatives continued to fund party committees and superPACs, Democrats beat Republicans in the contest for small-donor contributions.

In 73 hot House races, Democrats raised more than $62 million from donors of $200 or less. Republicans raised barely $27 million.

Democrats will take control of the U.S. House in January with big items topping their legislative to-do list: Remove obstacles to voting, close loopholes in government ethics law and reduce the influence of political money.

Party leaders say the first legislative vote in the House will come on H.R. 1, a magnum opus of provisions that Democrats believe will strengthen U.S. democratic institutions and traditions.

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House Democrats want more documents regarding the FBI's future move to a new headquarters, a project that changed direction after officials from the FBI and other agencies met with President Trump last January.

Updated at 11:45 a.m. ET

Voters in more than a dozen states will vote on ballot questions next Tuesday to enact stringent laws on campaign finance and other government ethics issues affecting state and local lawmakers.

It's one of the highest of the high stakes in the midterm elections. Democrats promise to put the Trump administration under the microscope of oversight investigations if they win control of the House.

Aggressive oversight would mark an abrupt about-face for Congress, where Republican leaders for two years have avoided confronting President Trump. GOP-led committees have resisted investigating alleged wrongdoing by officials, as well as questions about Trump's own possible conflicts of interest.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi vowed this week to demand President Trump's tax returns if Democrats win control of the House of Representatives next month.

Pelosi, seeking to regain her gavel as House speaker after elections in November, told The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board that the move "is one of the first things we'd do — that's the easiest thing in the world. That's nothing."

Not so long ago — the administration of President George W. Bush — $1 million could get you elected to Congress. Now, four weeks from Election Day, Democrats say 60 of their candidates raised that much or more, just in the last three months.

Fueled by an energetic base of small donors, Democrats are going into the final stretch of the election with a substantial financial advantage, erasing Republicans' typical fundraising edge.

Advocacy groups are ratcheting up the war over Judge Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination, shedding the last vestiges of a high-minded issues debate in favor of more acidic attacks on character and motives.

The attacks are fueled by the allegation, now being investigated by the FBI, that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted a girl while in prep school. And now they're further stoked by Kavanaugh's opening statement at last week's Senate Judiciary Committee meeting.

About 200 Democrats in the House and Senate have won a judge's approval to go ahead with their anti-corruption lawsuit against President Trump.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, in Washington, D.C., said the lawmakers have standing to sue Trump. They allege he violates the Foreign Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, as his hotels and other establishments around the world profit from spending and favors by foreign governments.

Gender gaps aren't just for the workplace, and the midterm elections are proving it. An NPR analysis of campaign finance records shows that Democratic women candidates face a fundraising gap, compared to Democratic men, in the party's toughest House races.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday insisted that many donations to predominantly conservative political nonprofit groups — what's often called dark money — be disclosed, seven weeks ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

The ruling closes, at least for now, a loophole that has allowed wealthy donors to finance aggressive ads while staying anonymous. Crafted by the Federal Election Commission nearly 40 years ago, the loophole flourished after the 2010 Citizens United ruling.

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Digital advertising is gaining ground as the medium of choice for political candidates. And now campaigns are making ads that don't just beam messages out. They bring money in. It's all about small donors, as NPR's Peter Overby reports.

The attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia want the legal authority to get any communications between President Trump and officials of foreign or U.S. state governments pertaining to his Trump International Hotel near the White House.

The proposal is one of several for "document discovery" in the historic civil suit against the president. As plaintiffs, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine and Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh can seek documents to bolster their complaints. They made their proposals Friday in a filing in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md.

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