Jewish World Review
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) Republicans and Democrats are raising more campaign funds than ever, but following the money in politics is getting harder and harder.
While navigating the new campaign finance law is complicated for candidates and campaign contributors, it's even trickier for average voters to figure out who's giving money, who's getting it and what the money is going for.
Special interests - from corporations to labor unions to ideological groups - still hold the keys to power in Washington, despite the passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law in late 2002.
The money is still flowing, with total spending on local, state and national campaigns this year expected to smash the record $2.9 billion spent in 2000.
Campaign 2004 is the first election under the new finance law. Dozens of partisan organizations have sprung up to test the limits of the law, and, in the process, have taken over many of the traditional functions of the national political parties.
All told, hundreds of millions of dollars are being raised this year by groups utterly unaccountable to the public, said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money and politics.
"We are well on our way to our goal," said Jim Jordan, spokesman for one of the new groups, America Coming Together, which intends to raise and spend nearly $100 million to defeat President Bush.
ACT got a good start with $10 million contributions from hedge fund manager George Soros and Peter Lewis, chairman of Progressive Corp. Labor unions are also major supporters of the new group and its sister organization, the Media Fund, which is raising millions to broadcast anti-Bush ads this summer.
Noble said ACT is blatantly illegal. His group filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission on Thursday against ACT, the Media Fund and similar Republican organization with close ties to House Minority leader Tom DeLay called the Leadership Forum.
Noble argues that the McCain-Feingold law did not create a huge loophole that allows unregulated money to flow into partisan groups like ACT and the Leadership Forum. These groups are actively campaigning for particular candidates and therefore fall under limits that restrict individual donations to $2,000 per year, Noble said. They are breaking the law.
"We are absolutely 100 percent confident, and have so advised by counsel, that all of our activities are entirely legal," ACT's Jordan said in an interview.
"These groups are political organizations under the IRS code," Noble said in an interview. Most of the groups have not filed detailed reports with the FEC on contributions and spending.
Instead, the new groups are organized under Section 527 of the tax code, which requires them to file bare-bones reports with the Internal Revenue Service. Both the Center for Public Integrity http://www.publici.org/527/updates.aspx and the Center for Responsive Politics http://www.opensecrets.org/bigpicture/index.asp are including such 527 groups in their campaign finance databases on their websites.
"People are saying, `I thought we fixed this problem,'" said Aron Pilhofer, an editor at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit group that produces investigative journalism into money and politics. "But you are seeing huge amounts of money being raised from the usual suspects."
McCain-Feingold didn't intend to take money entirely out of politics, but it did attempt to weaken the direct link between the money given to politicians and the favors they grant or deny.
The heart of the McCain-Feingold was its ban on so-called soft money donations to political parties. In the 2000 election, each party raised about $250 million in unregulated soft money contributions.
Under previous laws, the parties could accept unlimited donations from wealthy individuals, corporations, labor unions and other groups for any purpose that didn't specifically advocate for a particular candidate.
In practice, said critics of the system, the parties and candidates were able to mix the soft money and the regulated "hard" money together, making a mockery of the campaign financing limits. Large contributors were able to give thousands or even millions of dollars to the parties, with the expectation that their views would get a hearing in Washington.
The new law forbids the parties from accepting soft money. So the soft money has found other outlets. And with higher individual contribution limits, more hard money is being raised than ever before.
President Bush will likely raise at least $175 million for his re-election campaign, repeating the successful tactics of 2000 that saw him collect more than $100 million from thousands of small contributions. Soft money donations were merely the icing on the cake for Bush in 2000.
By contrast with the Republicans, Democrats have traditionally relied on soft money from a handful of extremely wealthy supporters as well as large bundled contributions from political action committees set up by labor unions, lawyers and lobbyists.
Democratic challenger Howard Dean has already raised more than $40 million, most from small donations through his unrivaled Internet operation.
Dean's campaign war chest will be supplemented by money going to the ACT, the Media Fund, Moveon.org and dozens of other Democratic-leaning groups.
ACT is not working directly with any candidate, Jordan said. Nonetheless, his group is working closely with "dozens of progressive groups," including the Media Fund and Moveon.org.
ACT will focus on registering voters, canvassing neighborhoods and getting out the vote, while the Media Fund and Moveon.org will bombard the airways with ads attacking Bush (but carefully refraining from mentioning the Democratic nominee).
The group makes no pretense of nonpartisanship. "We want to support the party," Jordan said.
Because of their advantage in traditional fund-raising and the advantage of incumbency, the Republicans are not relying on outside groups to carry their message to the voters this year.
Still, the money and the influence it brings is not flowing into either the Democratic or Republican parties. Instead, candidates are finding it easier to raise large sums on their own, while quasi-independent groups are replacing the parties on the ground and in the air.
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