In September, amid his rant-gone-viral about the spuriousness of the Miss America pageant's college scholarship program, HBO's "Last Week Tonight" host John Oliver summoned a stack of IRS 990 forms.
"We've had a weird week," Oliver cracked, as he plunked down the papers on his fake news desk, indicating that it had included much time spent poring through the annual returns tax-exempt organizations must file with the IRS.
In terms of the national zeitgeist, this represented a big moment for Oliver—but also for the stack of papers.
"Who would have thought a regulatory document would play the part of a cultural touchstone?" said Jacob Harold, president of GuideStar USA, a nonprofit that currently houses the largest searchable database of the 990 forms.
Harold notes that as nonprofits become an increasingly influential sector of the economy—according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics there are presently more than 1.5 million tax-exempt organizations in the United States, comprising more than 5 percent of U.S. GDP—the Form 990 is becoming an increasingly important window into the way things work.
And in election politics—where a flood of dark money now flows through a complex and largely obscured system of 501(c) organizations—the Form 990 has become a focal point, a document far more revelatory than the reams of paper regularly submitted to the Federal Election Commission.
On Thursday, a group of 18 left-leaning campaign finance and open government groups sent a letter to the presidents of the major news networks imploring them to amp up their coverage of outside money in politics. This came on the heels a New York Times/CBS poll that showed American voters' continued querulousness with the influence of wealthy donors on elections.
Although it's traditionally been left-leaning activists and government watchdogs who have taken up the cause of scrutinizing 990s, this election has given conservatives just as much reason to reckon.
Consider that over the last two months, the scrutiny of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign has been focused not on her policy papers, nor even those show-stopping Benghazi emails, but instead on the 990 forms of the Clinton Foundation—and their various revelations, discrepancies and omissions.
It seems that if the American public learns nothing else from this upcoming presidential election, it will learn some accounting.