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The Senate approves bipartisan legislation, the so-called “Stealth PAC” bill, that requires secretive tax-exempt organizations that raise and spend money on political activities to reveal their donors and expenditures. The so-called “527” organizations have flourished because until now, Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code has protected both their nonprofit status and their right to keep their donors and funding information secret (see 2000 - 2005). President Clinton will sign the bill into law. It is the first major legislative change in American campaign finance law in two decades (see January 8, 1980). Under the new law, Section 527 organizations raising over $25,000 a year must comply with federal campaign law, file tax returns, disclose the identities of anyone contributing over $200, and report expenditures in excess of $500. That information will be reported to the IRS every three months during an election year, and the information will be posted on the Internet. The bill takes effect as soon as Clinton signs it into law.
Passed Despite Republican Opposition - The House passed the bill on a 385-39 vote; only six Senate Republicans vote against the bill. Senate and House Republican leaders have blocked the bill for months. Clinton says, “Passage of this bill proves that public interest can triumph over special interests,” and urges Congress to pass a more comprehensive overhaul of campaign finance law. Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) says, “I’m not pretending we don’t have other loopholes to close, but those groups that have found this an easy, painless way to go on the attack are now going to have to scramble to figure out different ways.” Some ways that groups will avoid the requirements of the new law are to reorganize themselves as for-profit organizations—thus losing their tax exemptions—or trying to reorganize as other types of nonprofits. Many expect donors to rush big contributions to these 527 groups before the new law takes effect. Mike Castle (R-DE), a House Republican who supports the bill, says, “I am sure that the phones are ringing over on K Street right now about how to get money into the 527s before they are eliminated.” Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who helped Senate Republicans block the bill and who voted no on its passage, now calls it a “relatively benign bill,” downplaying his stiff opposition to the bill and to campaign finance regulation in general. McConnell advised Republicans up for re-election in November 2000 to vote yes for the bill “to insulate them against absurd charges that they are in favor of secret campaign contributions or Chinese money or Mafia money.” McConnell explains that he voted against the bill because it infringes on freedom of speech (see December 15, 1986). Governor George W. Bush (R-TX), the GOP’s presidential candidate, issues a statement supporting the bill: “As I have previously stated, I believe these third-party groups should have to disclose who is funding their ads. As the only candidate to fully disclose contributors on a daily basis, I have always been a strong believer in sunshine and full disclosure.” Bush defeated Republican challenger John McCain (R-AZ) in part because of the efforts of Republicans for Clean Air, a 527 group headed by Bush financier Sam Wyly and which spent $2.5 million attacking McCain’s environmental record (see March 2000 and After). McCain helped push the current bill through the Senate, and says: “This bill will not solve what is wrong with our campaign finance system. But it will give the public information regarding one especially pernicious weapon used in modern campaigns.”
527s Used by Both Parties - Both Democrats and Republicans have created and used 527 groups, which are free from federal oversight as long as they do not advocate for or against a specific candidate. The organizations use donations for polling, advertising, telephone banks, and direct-mail appeals, but are not subject to federal filing or reporting rules as long as they do not advocate the election or defeat of a specific candidate. Some groups, such as the Republican Majority Issues Committee, a 527 organization aligned with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), intend to continue functioning as usual even after the bill is signed into law, while they examine their legal options. The committee head, Karl Gallant, says his organization will “continue on our core mission to give conservative voters a voice in the upcoming elections.” The Republican Majority Issues Committee is considered DeLay’s personal PAC, or political action committee; it is expected to funnel as much as $25 million into closely contested races between now and Election Day. Gallant says the organization will comply with the new law, but complains, “We are deeply concerned that Congress has placed the regulation of free speech in the hands of the tax collectors.” He then says: “We’re not going anywhere. You will have RMIC to amuse and delight you throughout the election cycle.” The Sierra Club’s own 527 organization, the Environmental Voter Education Campaign, says it will also comply “eagerly” with the new law, and will spend some $8 million supporting candidates who match the Sierra Club’s pro-environmental stance. “We will eagerly comply with the new law as soon as it takes effect,” says the Sierra Club’s Dan Weiss. “But it’s important to note that while we strongly support the passage of this reform, 527 money is just the tip of the soft-money iceberg. Real reform would mean banning all soft-money contributions to political parties.” Another 527 group affected by the new law is Citizens for Better Medicare, which has already spent $30 million supporting Republican candidates who oppose a government-run prescription drug benefit. Spokesman Dan Zielinski says the group may change or abandon its 527 status in light of the new law. “The coalition is not going away,” he says. “We will comply with whatever legal requirements are necessary. We’ll do whatever the lawyers say we have to do.” A much smaller 527, the Peace Voter Fund, a remnant of the peace movement of the 1970s and 80s, says it intends to engage in voter education and issue advocacy in about a dozen Congressional races. Executive director Van Gosse says the group will follow the new law and continue as before: “Disclosure of donors is not a major issue for us. So we’ll just say to donors in the future that they will be subject to federal disclosure requirements. It’s no biggie.” (Schmitt and Broder 6/30/2000; OMB Watch 4/1/2002; Wertheimer 9/28/2010)
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