527s and the political process

Numbers, numbers, numbers. In the news lately, we’re hearing a new number, the 527.

What is a 527 organization? Actually, 527 is a section in the IRS code. According to the IRS, it identifies “an organization that is created to receive and disburse funds to influence or attempt to influence the nominations, election, appointment or defeat of candidates for public office.”

Sounds like a political action committee, or PAC, so what’s the difference? In fact, a 527 is a PAC. However, there is one major difference: a 527 organization does not fall within the regulatory realm of the Federal Election Commission, and therefore it is not subject to the same limits as FEC-regulated PACs.

A 527 organization may fund advertisements favoring any candidate as long as it is independent of the candidate. The groups cannot coordinate their ads with the presidential campaigns. But if they use individuals’ donations, rather than labor union or corporate donations, they can run ads praising or attacking a candidate right up until Election Day.

This is not a new clause. In 2000, a 527 group named “Citizens for Clean Air” ran ads criticizing Sen. John McCain during the California Republican primary. This year, the 527’s have taken on a bigger role, and they could very well be instrumental in who is the next elected president.

As of mid-August these groups have spent a total of more than $200 million. To better bring this dollar amount into prospective, consider that for the same period of time, the Bush campaign had spent $159 million and the Kerry campaign had spent $142 million.

Putting the money and the technicalities aside, who are these groups? In this current run for the November election, some 527 political groups have acted as an attack dog for Republican President George W. Bush.

“Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” is a 527 group that accuses Senator John Kerry of having lied about his Vietnam War record and the medals he won during his tour of duty in 1969. According to MSNBC.com, the Swift Boat group is financed partly by Texas Republican donor Bob Perry. He contributed to Bush’s 2000 campaign.

The nonpartisan watchdog group Factcheck.org said of the Swift Boat ad, “The veterans who accuse Kerry are contradicted by Kerry’s former crewmen. Thirty-five years later and half a world away, we see no way to resolve which of these versions of reality is closer to the truth.” Unfortunately, as is so often the case in the election process, the voters are the last ones to know. Once the ad appears on TV or in the newspapers, the damage is done and it’s often too late to dig in to the background of the group sponsoring the ad.

With the names of some of these 527s, it’s easy to be fooled. Wouldn’t we all want to jump on the bandwagon of the “Americans for a Better Country”? Maybe not. This is a pro-Republican group aimed at countering the Democrats. “Americans for Job Security” is actually a pro-business group that works to counter the labor movement.

On the other side of the political spectrum, “MoveOn.org” has accused Bush of doing everything in his power to avoid duty in Vietnam. They point to the fact that Bush joined the Texas National Guard because its members did not serve in Vietnam. “America Votes” and “MoveOn.org” are both pro-Democrat. America Votes coordinates activities for 20 different Democrat organizations and MoveOn.org airs TV ads critical of the Bush administration and encourages Democrat votes. Voices for Working Families and America Coming Together have registered and mobilized hundreds of thousands of voters in key states.

Although the 527 has been around a while, the growth of the groups can be blamed on President Bush and Congress. In 2002, they enacted the “Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.” This law banned unlimited “soft money” contributions to national political parties. The Democrat Party used to rely heavily on this money.

More than half of the 527 groups were formed after the Congress passed the campaign finance reform legislation that banned “soft money.” Different 527s do different things. Some broadcast TV ads (an example is the Swift Boat Vets), others target potential voters and mobilize voter registration.

— Excerpted from The Labor Paper, Peoria, Ill. Reprinted with permission.