It must be a giddy time to be a far right-wing Republican. The Republican Party controls both houses of Congress. George W. Bush has turned out to be the most stubbornly conservative, right-wing President ever. Now, along comes the icing on the cake, and they're licking their chops like hungry wolves. Let's face it, extreme-right Republicans aren't crazy about groups devoted to causes like environmental protection, civil rights, and a woman's right to choose. Suddenly they think they've finally found a way to put America's pesky do-gooder non-profit and public interest organizations out of business. Or at least out of the business of speaking out on issues in any meaningful way.
In an ironic twist, the weapon the Republicans hope to use to silence the non-profit lambs ends up being campaign finance reform laws. Specifically, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, passed mostly by Democrats in 2002 against fierce Republican opposition. Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky actually filed suit to stop the law from taking effect, until the Supreme Court ruled against him late last year.
Like most attempts at campaign finance reform, McCain-Feingold was designed to get big money out of politics. Its main effect was a ban on so-called "soft money" donations to the national parties. Previously, the Republicans and Democrats could solicit donations of unlimited amounts from corporations, unions, interest groups, and wealthy donors, and spend soft money on anything defined as "party-building" activities, from issue-oriented TV ads to get-out-the-vote drives. During the 2000 election cycle, Republicans raised $250 million in soft money, and the Democrats, $245 million. Now, the parties must raise "hard money," in contributions from individuals that are regulated and limited in size.
But McCain-Feingold also had another, largely unintended consequence. It included a directive Republicans are now trying hard to exploit. The law contains language that says any group trying to "influence" federal elections must register as a political committee. Can you see them drooling yet? Following the Supreme Court decision upholding McCain-Feingold, in February the Federal Election Commission (FEC) proposed additional rules for enforcing its provisions. The rules they are now considering, and accepting public comments on through April 9th
mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org, are strongly supported by the Republican National Committee. The FEC will hold public hearings on the rules April 14-15, and a final decision could come by mid-May, with the rules to take effect as early as July, 2004.
News coverage of these proposed changes has primarily focused on the threat they pose to the voter mobilization activities of 527 groups like the MoveOn.org Voter Fund or Americans Coming Together. These groups get their name from section 527 of the tax code, which covers groups that engage in politics, while not expressly advocating the election or defeat of individual candidates. Less noticed have been the potential these rules have to affect the ability of a broad range of other non-profit groups to communicate with the public. If adopted, they would have a chilling effect on the activities of many established non-profit and public interest groups.
One rule would expand the definition of a "political committee" to include many non-profits who take positions on public policy issues yet do not consider electoral politics their primary mission. A group would be forced to become a "political committee" and allowed to raise only hard money if it spends $50,000 or more in the current year or any one of the past four years on any public communication that "promotes, supports, attacks or opposes" any federal candidate, or on nonpartisan voter registration or get out the vote programs.
What kind of campaign finance reform declares nonpartisan voter registration a partisan political activity that can no longer be funded by ordinary charitable donations? In an era when half of all eligible U.S. voters don't participate in elections, why is the FEC considering making it harder for non-profit groups to conduct nonpartisan voter registration and voter turnout programs?
It gets worse, and again, the devil's in the definitions. Another proposed rule would expand the definition of a federally regulated "expenditure" to include communications that “promote, support, attack, or oppose” not only federal candidates, but their policy positions. So according to the FEC, commenting on a candidate's position statements won't be covered by something called the First Amendment. This is a radical departure from established campaign regulations that have worked well for years. FEC guidelines already restrict non-profits from engaging in "political speech." To suddenly expand this definition to include all speech about all candidates for federal office would be ludicrous.
There's also a retroactive clause thrown in for good measure. If the proposed rules pass, the FEC will "look back" at a non-profit group's activities over the past four years, to determine whether the group should be re-classified as a political committee. Never mind that McCain-Feingold only passed in 2002, and the FEC only proposed these rules this year. Even if a group played by the rules in the past, they'll be penalized tomorrow. If non-profit groups are re-classified as political committees, the FEC will require them to raise hard money to repay old expenses now covered by the new rules. Their activities will be forcibly halted until they've paid in full for supposed soft money sins of the past.
Theoretically, under these proposed rules, groups like the League of Women Voters would be re-classified as political committees if they spent more than $50,000 in 2004 sending letters urging community members to vote because it was their "civic duty." Advocacy groups such as NARAL would be prevented from contacting activists and urging them to call their members of Congress to oppose a bill banning all abortions. Rock The Vote, which works to boost nonpartisan youth voter turnout, would be forced to stop accepting money from traditional charitable sources, including corporations and foundations. A policy oriented group like the Concord Coalition that advocates a balanced budget would be banned from using records of corporate contributions to elected officials to let the public know how candidates stand on budget issues.
It's not just the liberal non-profit lambs who are endangered. In a February letter to the FEC, conservative interest groups including the National Right To Life Committee and the Club For Growth also spoke out against the FEC's proposed rules, claiming that "the issue is democracy, not political or ideological advantage," and "as a matter of principle, all voices should be heard and not reduced to silence by overly burdensome restrictions." All kinds of non-profits are threatened by these new rules, including educational groups, charities, churches, and trade associations.
But on this question, the far right-wing in control of the national Republican party is content to sacrifice its own ideological supporters. They figure there's more liberal non-profits than conservative ones doing troublesome things like nonpartisan voter registration and providing the public with useful information about public policy issues.
It's yet another example of how the old, established rules of civility in political combat no longer apply if you're a right-wing Republican in 2004 desperately seeking to hold onto political power. Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay masterminded the passage of a blatantly partisan redistricting plan in Texas solely designed to elect more Republicans to Congress and help make him Speaker of the House. George W. Bush has used recess appointments to elevate unqualified, right-wing ideologues to the Federal judiciary who couldn't get confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Now the far right hopes to bully the FEC into silencing non-profit groups and calling it campaign finance reform. Concerned Americans of all political persuasions should call it an outrage.