Peter Overby

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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.

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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.

Updated at 7:15 p.m. ET

Democrats have long called for President Trump to release his tax returns, and now a key congressman has put in a formal request with the IRS.

Massachusetts Democrat Richard Neal, chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, is requesting six years of Trump's personal tax returns and the returns for some of his businesses for the years 2013-2018. Neal argues that Congress, and his committee in particular, need to conduct oversight of the IRS, including its policy of auditing the tax returns of sitting presidents.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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It's been a bad year for ethics in Washington. That's true even when you set aside the Russia mess. NPR's Peter Overby has the story.

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Last month, Ross Spano won the race to represent Florida's 15th Congressional District. But there's now talk of investigations into how the Republican lawmaker financed his campaign. Here's NPR's Peter Overby.

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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