Bank lobby sets up outside spending group

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And of that amount, Hunter noted that for the group to qualify as tax-exempt, Internal Revenue Services regulations require it to spend at least 51 percent of its funds on "public issue advocacy," leaving roughly $1 million to be spent on political races. He maintained that the advocacy portion of the arrangement carries its own appeal to the ABA, beyond its ability to spend freely on elections. 

Hunter said that in the upcoming lame duck and next session of Congress, the ABA will be able to use the funds to help make its case to lawmakers via research, reports and the like.

"Honestly, that's every bit as much of an emphasis for this, as the ability to do things in elections," he said.

The ABA has already donated $1.8 million to various candidates during the 2011-2012 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But the creation of this new spending group allows the group to directly spend in contentious races and collect funds without having to disclose donors.

The ABA's efforts could mark a new front on its efforts to dampen some of the provisions of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. The financial industry has been fiercely critical of several of the sweeping overhaul's provisions, and have launched a broad attempt to stifle many of them, making their case to regulators and lawmakers. 

But so far, legislative attempts to alter the law, a key achievement of the last Democratically-controlled Congress, have fractured along party lines. The GOP-led House has advanced several bills that would alter or repeal provisions of the law, but none have been able to gain traction in the Senate, where Democrats retain a slim majority.

Hunter did not opine on what races the group might try to influence, saying those decisions would be made by the new entity's board, which will be made up of ABA leaders. He added that he expects the new arrangement will be operational in a month or so, just in time for it to dabble in the 2012 elections.

While the ABA says a number of other trade groups have taken a similar approach, the banking lobby's attempt to get into the anonymous donor game has not gone unnoticed. The consumer advocacy group Public Citizen sent a letter to the Internal Revenue Service on Thursday flagging the new entity, calling on it to "closely scrutinize" its operations to determine if it deserves its tax-exempt status.

"The public statements by the American Bankers Association reflect this attitude of abusing the tax code for its own political purposes," the group wrote. "It is time for the IRS to play a more proactive role in protecting the integrity of the Internal Revenue Code."