Hill Split on 527s


There’s growing consensus on Capitol Hill that something must be done about “527s,” the nonprofit groups like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and MoveOn.org that pumped nearly $400 million into mostly negative TV ads during the 2004 presidential campaign.

But the House and Senate appear split on how to deal with the groups, which allowed donors to circumvent federal restrictions on campaign contributions with activities clearly aimed at affecting the outcome of federal elections.

Two bills with wildly divergent approaches to dealing with 527s are pending in Congress—one is more popular in the House, the other in the Senate. Consequently, it may be impossible to pass either.

Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., is co-sponsoring a plan that would eliminate the cap limiting an individual’s total contributions to all federal campaigns to $95,000 every two years. His plan is supported by House Administration Committee Chairman Robert Ney, who during a hearing on the competing bills Wednesday said he favors pushing Pence's measure through the House.

Pence says the limit weakened national political parties and candidates and transformed 527s into magnates for wealthy donors willing to donate millions to influence campaigns. Rather than impose further regulations on 527s, Pence wants political parties returned “to their rightful place in the political process.”

A rival plan co-sponsored by Rep. Christopher Shays, an author of the 2002 campaign finance law that led to the dramatic reliance on 527s, would instead make donations to the groups subject to same limits and disclosure requirements as direct donations to political parties and candidates.Shays says what the bill is really doing is simply enforcing existing laws, blaming the Federal Election Commission for giving 527's carte blanche with their check books.

Shay's bill has the edge in the Senate, where it has the backing of Trent Lott, chairman of the Rules Committee, the panel that decides ground rules for every bill debated on the Senate floor.

"These groups cannot be allowed to shirk their responsibilities to comply with federal campaign finance laws when they are spending money to influence federal elections," Shays said during the hearing.