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 Washington Notebook

March 10, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 9

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


"The situation is so critical that it really is a wonderful thing that religious people of faith could be a part of a 527 and move beyond nonparticipation into active participation in the electoral process."

The Rev. Brenda Bartella
executive director, Clergy Leadership Network


It's Hard to Rid System of Soft Money; Mission Funding Debated; Election Monitoring by Pax Christi

By Joe Feuerherd

The 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation was supposed to put an end to "soft money" -- unregulated contributions that do not go to a candidate directly but to a third party that electioneers on the politician's behalf.

It didn't work.

The 2004 presidential contest will likely see more unlimited spending by interest groups and wealthy individuals than any previous campaign. And for that, Democrats (including their supporters amongst the progressive clergy) are happy, Republicans wary, and good-government reformers flummoxed.

First, some background.

McCain-Feingold had a number of controversial provisions, all of which were upheld by the Supreme Court in 2003. The law, for example, prevents issue advocates (such as the NRA or the Sierra Club) from running advertisements for or against a specific candidate 60 days prior to a general election. (The idea was to prevent a last minute distortion of a candidate's record of the kind, not coincidentally, that John McCain suffered in the 2000 Republican primaries.)

McCain-Feingold also raised the "hard money" (that which goes directly to a candidate) contribution limits from $1,000 to $2,000, a provision which has helped Bush's campaign already raise $145 million.

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And it banned political parties from accepting soft money -- which proponents said was key to limiting the corrupting influence of corporations, labor unions and other wealthy political insiders who want favors from government.

Except there's a loophole -- a Grand Canyon-like chasm in fact -- through which unregulated and unlimited soft dollars are finding their way into the political system. And that chasm has a name, or more accurately, a number: 527.

Section 527 of the Internal Revenue code deals with political entities -- parties, political action committees, and candidate campaign committees. It also governs the activities of what critics call "Stealth Political Action Committees."

These "527s" have existed for decades -- but they've been given new vitality by McCain-Feingold's ban on soft money contributions to the parties. So, rather than international financier George Soros or Progressive Insurance president Peter Lewis pouring their fortunes directly into the Democratic Party's coffers, they provide funding to such nobly named groups as Americans Coming Together (which received $10 million from Soros and $10 million from Lewis).

The ten largest 527s have raised more than $70 million through March 8, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Starting today, March 10, a 527 headed by Democratic operative Harold Ickes will spend $5 million on anti-Bush television advertising in 17 key electoral states. Additional advertising, as well as get-out-the-vote and voter registration efforts, are planned by the Democratic-supporting 527s.

The groups are not shy about their mission: "We are dedicated to defeating George W. Bush, electing progressives at all levels of government, and mobilizing millions of people to register and vote around the critical issues facing our country," says the Americans Coming Together Website.

What makes the 527's so pernicious? Common Cause says the groups file confidential tax returns, do not have to incorporate, can spend money without disclosing where it went, and can take money from foreign donors. Plus a 527 can donate an unlimited amount of money to another 527 - making it nearly impossible to track the source of funds.

The Clergy Leadership Network, an interfaith 527 launched late last year, makes no apologies for its efforts. To get started, the group received nearly $50,000 from Americans Coming Together. It is focused on educating members of the clergy about the do's and don'ts of politicking from the pulpit -- with a stated goal of "national leadership change."

"The situation is so critical that it really is a wonderful thing that religious people of faith could be a part of a 527 and move beyond nonparticipation into active participation in the electoral process," says Rev. Brenda Bartella, the group's executive director. The group is planning a mid-May conference of 1,000 or more like-minded clergy who will hear what they can and can't do politically in the upcoming election.

Whatever the motivation, says Steven Weiss of the Center for Responsive Politics, 527s "are a clear attempt to circumvent the law." The Center is one of several interest groups (including the Republican National Committee) that have complained to the Federal Election Commission about the 527s, arguing that they should be regulated like Political Action Committees.

Plus, says Weiss, while 527s are prohibited from "coordinating" with political parties or campaigns, that ban may exist more on paper than in reality. For example, said Weiss, a campaign might hire a consultant to develop television advertising; then the 527 hires the same consultant to develop its advertising. It's likely that the messages and purchase of air time will mesh nicely, though no "coordination" has taken place.

Democratic leaning 527s have raised 7 times the money of their Republican-leaning counterparts. Why the discrepancy? First, the Bush campaign has great success in raising money in $2,000 individual contributions. They simply don't need the funds the way the Democrats do. (A Bush "ranger" is an individual who gets 99 other friends or business associates to contribute $2,000 for a total of $200,000, while a "pioneer" is responsible for generating $100,000 to the campaign.)

Also, said Weiss, the legal uncertainty surrounding 527s (the Federal Election Commission is looking into their practices, but experts say it is unlikely to call for increased regulation before the 2004 elections) may have spooked Republican givers.

It's an odd situation. Many Democrats, once champions of campaign finance reform, have put winning the White House ahead of "good government." Republicans, like those at a Senate hearing on the topic scheduled for March 10, are suddenly aghast that's there's soft money being used to finance campaign activities.

One thing is clear: In the mind of many Democratic Party activists and large contributors, the end (defeating George W. Bush) justifies the means (using unaccountable 527s to finance the campaign).

Eight months to election day. It is going to be a rough campaign.


The leading critic of federal funding for faith-based charitable groups has joined forces with the Bush Administration to oppose legislation that would provide $10 million to preserve 21 historic mission churches in California.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), is backed by the California Missions Society, whose high-powered members include former California governors Gray Davis, Pete Wilson, and Jerry Brown. The Foundation is headed by Stephen Hearst, vice president of the publishing company that bears his name.

A Park Service official told a Senate subcommittee March 9 that the administration opposes the measure because the funds would be diverted from existing Park Service programs. Budget purists and federal agency heads dislike such "earmarking," which tends to favor those areas of the country that have influential senators who can deliver "pork barrel" spending.

Meanwhile, Americans United for Separation of Church and State executive director Barry Lynn told the subcommittee that 19 of the missions are fully functioning parishes, and hence should not receive federal aid.

Said Lynn: "These missions are houses of worship; they are not simply museums. Funds to fix the ceilings and windows and to revitalize the religious icons on the walls must come from their congregants or from the tens of thousands of yearly visitors and from America's charitable foundations. I believe that the people of California and tourists from around the nation can preserve these mission buildings without passing the collection plate to Uncle Sam."

Boxer defended the proposed funding, which would not go directly to the churches, but to the Missions Society. The legislation includes a provision that forbids the funds to be used to "promote religion." Said Boxer, "This legislation will help ensure the future of missions and their place in California's rich culture and history."

Identical legislation was previously approved by the House of Representatives.


Jimmy Carter made election monitoring famous. The former president puts together a team to witness elections in fledgling democracies and then reports on whether the contests were conducted fairly. It's an electoral Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for governments seeking legitimacy.

Now, Pax Christi USA is getting in the business. Except they're going to Florida.

"As the 2004 presidential election season swings into full gear, we believe it is imperative that non-partisan organizations commit resources to ensuring that this election does not result in controversy similar to what we witnessed in 2000," said Dave Robinson, national coordinator of the Catholic peace and justice organization. "We want to make sure that the sanctity of every vote and the dignity of every voter is respected and upheld, especially for those who experienced such a high degree of disenfranchisement in the previous presidential election."

Pax Christi will target four counties -- Miami/Dade, Palm Beach, Broward and Duval -- and deploy election monitoring teams to precincts in those counties.

Florida Governor Jeb Bush dismissed the effort.

"This is all part of some politically motivated thing that tries to scare people to somehow think their vote is not going to count," said Bush. "That's hogwash, hogwash."

"Assuring each citizen's right to vote is not hogwash," responded Robinson. "Having non-partisan election monitors from the international community is an essential component to assuring the integrity of the election process in Florida."

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is

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