Defining Political Money

The US Senate, no less, took a useful step toward campaign-finance reform last week. With 14 Republicans joining the Democrats, the Senate voted to close a legal loophole that allows certain nonprofit groups active in politics to sponsor campaign ads without disclosing where they get their money.

The House, regrettably, didn't quickly follow the Senate's lead. It voted down a twin measure, though the House leadership did agree to another vote on the matter before month's end. So there's still hope this imminently reasonable step may be taken. But the motives in Congress are, to put it mildly, mixed.

The Senate action was aimed at a particular type of political committee operating under a provision of the federal tax code, Section 527.

So-called 527 groups have proliferated of late. Many have close ties to well-known politicians. They solicit contributions from unnamed sources and then run "issue ads," which avoid direct endorsements of candidates, but leave no doubt whose side they're on.

It seemed, at first, that reformers were going to have a much easier time forcing disclosure, and thus a measure of public scrutiny and accountability, on "527s" than they'd had trying to close that other gaping loophole - party "soft money" operations that suck millions of unregulated dollars into campaigns. The constitutional issues appear less intense with disclosure, and many who bridle at other reforms support fuller disclosure of campaign contributions.

But nothing comes easily in this arena. Powerful political interests are too well served by the current system.

House Republicans are drawing up an alternative disclosure measure that may try to cast its net much more widely than the 527 committees. Environmental groups, labor bodies, professional associations - all of which do their share of political work - could be targeted. Problem is, this more sweeping attempt to mandate disclosure could raise another flurry of constitutional challenges, related to freedom of association.

If the goal is, in fact, a concrete step of reform, the wiser approach is to keep the focus on those groups taking advantage of the tax-law loophole.

Such groups clearly violate the standard of open, accountable politics.

If political skulduggery is at work in trying to thwart even this reform, the public should not be fooled.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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