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    Stealth Campaigning

    By Dwight L. Morris
    January 14, 1997

    The Federal Election Commission was designed to fail. With six commissioners – three Democrats and three Republicans – and no mechanism for breaking tie votes, truly controversial cases routinely go unresolved. The agency has no power to levy fines; instead it must negotiate penalties with those who violate election laws or hope that the Justice Department can be convinced to prosecute the offenders. It is so understaffed that it can thoroughly audit no more than a dozen campaigns in any given election. It is hard to imagine a more ineffectual federal agency.

    Nevertheless, this toothless tiger may well have seen its best days. Marked by an explosion of totally unregulated expenditures, the 1996 campaign rendered the FEC virtually irrelevant.

    The AFL-CIO v. The GOP
    According to the latest available FEC records, the AFL-CIO spent $217,720 on independent campaigns to defeat Republican candidates. This money funded mailings and telephone calls to union members across the country, urging the election of specific Democratic candidates. Half of that money – $107,876 – was spent in the January special election to fill the vacant seat created by the resignation of Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood.

    In fact, the AFL-CIO spent more than $35 million to influence the outcome of the 1996 presidential, Senate and House contests. The AFL-CIO pumped more than $20 million into television commercials that praised the Clinton budget plans and warned voters in selected districts that their congressional representative – who just happened to be Republican – wanted to slash Medicare benefits, cut spending on education and student loans, and provide big business and wealthy individuals with a big tax cut.

    Since none of the ads ever expressly urged people to vote for or against any particular candidate, none of the AFL-CIOís spending will ever have to be reported to the FEC as election activity. Nor will the union ever have to document the millions of dollars it spent to create and mail roughly 100 glossy brochures to its members across the country. Nor will the union ever have to document the cost of the countless mall-intercept interviews and focus groups it took to hone the messages delivered in those mailings and advertisements.

    The AFL-CIOís unreported outlays amount to roughly twice the $18,830,357 reported to the FEC by all organizations that undertook independent campaigns during 1996 (excluding independent outlays by Republican and Democratic party committees). And the unionís activities represent only a portion of the political activity that will forever go unrecorded.

    EMILY's List and Blue-Collar Women
    Working with three persuasion mail consultants anointed by Democratic party elders, EMILYís List, a political action committee that raises money for pro-choice Democratic women, developed a series of mailers designed to increase turnout among blue-collar working women. Since the mailings never urged the election of a particular candidate, none of the costs of developing and executing this mail campaign – including extensive survey research – will ever be reported to the FEC. EMILYís List is nowhere to be found among the official list of organizations involved in large-scale independent campaigns during 1996.

    Americans for Limited Terms
    In the Illinois Republican primary, Americans for Limited Terms distributed about 440,000 fliers praising Senate hopeful Al Salviís support for term limits and attacking the anti-term limit stance of his primary opponent, Lt. Gov. Robert Kustra. Again, because the organization did not explicitly urge people to vote for Salvi, none of the expenses associated with those leaflets had to be reported.

    Christian Coalition Voter Guides
    That effort pales when compared with the nearly 50 million voter guides distributed nationwide by the Christian Coalition prior to the November general election. For years the coalitionís so-called "independent" voter guides have supported Republican candidates (the organization was initially an offshoot of televangelist Pat Robertsonís failed 1988 presidential bid), and at the coalitionís 1996 national convention Robertson himself urged attendees to elect more Republicans to Congress. Nevertheless, the Christian Coalition has never reported a dime of its spending to the FEC, and despite an FEC lawsuit accusing it of undertaking partisan activity, the coalition was not about to begin reporting its political expenditures in 1996.

    "Official" Independent Campaigners
    By comparison, the independent campaign expenses actually reported to the FEC seem puny. Topping the list of "official" independent campaigners was the National Right To Life Committee, which invested $2,553,690 in direct opposition or support of candidates. Amazingly, the organization pumped $1,179,554 into an independent campaign supporting Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, who won his third term with 55 percent of the vote. All but about $39,000 of that prodigious effort was spent on October 25. The organization spent $134,583 supporting Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole; $67,440 in support of Republican Senate hopeful Guy Millner (Ga.); $66,049 in support of the Republican Senate nominee in Iowa, Jim Ross Lightfoot; and $66,002 in support of Republican Woody Jenkins, who lost a Senate contest in Louisiana. The organization spent between $61,814 and $14 to support or oppose 81 other candidates.

    Next on the list of organizations officially running independent campaigns was the Communication Workers of America (CWA), which spent $1,226,454 to support 75 candidates. The CWA poured $1,218,104 into leaflets and brochures supporting Bill Clinton, which were mailed to the unionís membership. The other 74 independent efforts consisted of newspaper ads, none of which cost more than $142.

    The League of Conservation Voters spent a total of $1,155,606 on 11 campaigns dedicated to defeating Republicans, including $227,527 against Senate nominee Gordon Smith in Oregon. The prolonged anti-Smith effort helped Rep. Ron Wyden beat Smith in the January special election, but could not keep the Republican from winning a Senate seat ten months later, when he narrowly edged Democrat Tom Bruggere to take the vacant seat created by the retirement of Mark O. Hatfield.

    In all, 23 candidates benefited from officially reported independent campaigns costing $100,000 or more, while another 127 received independent support totaling at least $10,000. One hundred forty-one independent campaigns costing $100 or less were reported to the FEC.

    Any campaign finance reform that fails to mandate full disclosure of issue-advocacy campaigns will not be reform. In future elections, the disparity between reported expenditures and unreported outlays will continue to grow.

    This article originally appeared on the PoliticsNow Web site.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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