Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 20 1997; Page A01
They have become a powerful third force in American politics, operating outside the election law: interest groups, from labor unions to business, that spend millions on advertising. Such "issue advocacy" advertising was the vehicle of choice in the 1996 campaign, and as the groups gear up to use the technique in the coming campaign, Congress and the Supreme Court are grappling with whether and how to address the phenomenon.
In Congress, a broad variety of interest groups that used issue advocacy during the last campaign, from the Teamsters to the Christian Coalition, have joined forces to resist subpoenas by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee investigating campaign finance abuses. The groups argue that the subpoenas "are a thinly disguised attack" on their free speech rights.
At the same time, lawmakers pushing to tighten campaign finance laws are wrestling with the issue advocacy phenomenon. The issue advocacy advertising in 1996 targeted particular members of Congress, but stopped short of explicitly urging voters to elect or defeat the lawmakers named. That allowed the organizations to operate outside the boundaries of election law, avoiding contribution restrictions and reporting requirements.
Proponents of changing the election laws fear that cutting off unlimited "soft money" donations to the political parties without doing anything about issue advocacy will simply shift large amounts of money into that arena, where it will be even more unregulated and unreported.
"It just goes over into the issue ads and that's why I believe that it's got to be part of the banning of soft money," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has endorsed a proposal that would subject issue ads to the requirements of federal election law if they mention or portray a particular candidate and are aired within 60 days of an election.
McCain and others also recognize they are treading on potentially dangerous constitutional territory by trying to regulate such ads, and that the courts have been hostile to such restrictions.
A critical test could come in the Supreme Court term that begins next month. In a case brought by the Maine Right to Life Committee, a federal appeals court struck down new Federal Election Commission rules governing issue ads. Under the FEC regulations, issue ads that "could only be interpreted by a reasonable person" as advocating the election or defeat of a candidate are covered by the normal restrictions on campaign contributions.
The Clinton administration has asked the high court to overturn the ruling, saying that it would "open the door for corporations, unions, and others . . . to influence federal elections by spending large amounts of money in independent advertisements that unambiguously attack clearly identified candidates." The high court has not decided yet whether it will hear the case.
Political experts say the explosion of issue advocacy advertising that began in the 1996 campaign is sure to expand in the 1998 cycle.
"More people will be playing, more money will be devoted to this form of activity, and I think that the ads are going to start much earlier and be aired more often," said Colby College political scientist Tony Corrado, who has studied the growth of issue advertising.
A study released this week by the Annenberg Public Policy Center estimates that political parties and outside groups spent between $135 million and $150 million on such advertising during the last campaign. Of the issue ads reviewed, 87 percent named individual candidates; they were also significantly more negative than regular political commercials.
Issue advocacy had been used in earlier election cycles and around legislative issues, but on a more modest scale. Its prominence in the health care debate of 1994, when the "Harry and Louise" ad campaign helped defeat the Clinton administration's health plan, showed the power of the approach. Then, in 1996, the groups pegged their issue ads to the election, and the ads named names.
"What you saw last year was the personalization of issue advocacy," said R. Bruce Josten of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which helped organize a business group, the Coalition, that spent $4.5 million on issue advertising and mailings. "You didn't just have a presentation of an issue and why it's good or why it's bad."
A special election in Oregon for a vacant Senate seat in January 1996 provided a test drive of the technique.
"It was like having a civil discussion with somebody on a street corner and all of a sudden, you're in a drive-by shooting," Oregon Republican Sen. Gordon Smith recalled of the onslaught of advertising by labor unions, environmental organizations and others in the race, which he lost to Democrat Ron Wyden.
That encouraged the groups to use the approach on a massive scale in the November elections. The AFL-CIO opened the bidding at a high level, launching a $35 million television advertising and voter education campaign aimed at vulnerable House Republicans, especially freshmen.
Those ads, broadcast far earlier in the year than most congressional campaigns began, sent approval scores for some of the targeted legislators tumbling. In a late effort to bolster Republican incumbents, business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) formed the Coalition in the summer of 1996. The group pumped its money into the same districts labor had chosen.
There is no agreement on how effective the issue ads were. The Business-Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC), an umbrella group whose political counsel is widely heeded, said in a July report that "labor may have miscalculated" and that, had the unions spent as much on traditional get-out-the-vote activities as they did on issue ads, "perhaps control of Congress, at least control of the House, might have shifted back to the Democrats."
Even though Republicans retained control of the House, their majority was sliced from 19 to 11 seats, mainly by losses in the labor-targeted districts. As Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and head honcho of labor's political effort, observed, that narrowed majority has made it far harder for Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to enact a GOP program.
Dan Weiss of the Sierra Club, which spent about $3 million on issue advocacy, said its ads "helped stop the tide of anti-environmental legislation in Congress and made the environment a much bigger part of the campaign debate." Polls in targeted congressional districts, he said, found that incumbents' environmental records were cited as the first or second most important reason for voting against them.
Likewise, said the Chamber of Commerce's Josten, "Our postelection research tells us we got a lot of bang for our dollars. . . . It's clear that if [AFL-CIO president John J.] Sweeney had been able to be out there unanswered he clearly would have had a much greater impact than he was able to have."
As Congress and the courts consider the issue, the groups that deployed the technique in 1996 are gearing up for the next round, though some may refocus on more traditional political methods like get-out-the-vote campaigns.
The AFL-CIO convention later this month will set spending targets for the 1998 political operation, but a Sweeney aide said, "We will probably devote more of our resources to internal communication with union families, registering members, informing them and then turning them out." Labor has run issue ads in a handful of districts already, but the scope of the 1998 TV and radio campaign is still unsettled.
The Sierra Club's Weiss said if expectations continue that 1998 will be a good year for incumbents "and if there's no real lobbying issue going on," groups like his will "ask if it makes sense to continue to do issue advocacy or are you better putting your money in other places?"
Yet the group already has run ads assailing federal subsidies for logging roads and supporting tougher clean air rules. When the Sierra Club wanted to push President Clinton and Vice President Gore to support adoption of proposed Environmental Protection Agency clean air standards, it took to the radio in New Hampshire.
In Washington state, where the Sierra Club ran issue ads last year that helped oust incumbent Republican Rep. Randy Tate and elect Democrat Adam Smith, the group turned the tables and ran an ad attacking Smith for an "environmentally and economically irresponsible" vote on logging roads.
On the business side too expansion plans are underway. Charles S. Mack, head of BIPAC, said despite the questions his group raised about the effectiveness of the 1996 issue ads, "I expect within a few years it will become a major tool as people in business learn to use it better."
The Coalition plans an earlier start on its efforts in the 1998 cycle, but it may not be the only vehicle for business participation. Michael Baroody of NAM and Dan Danner of NFIB, other Coalition partners, said they would like to keep business's efforts centralized, but realize that differences on message and targeting may make that impossible. This time, both men said, business must choose its own targets, not simply try to "level the playing field" for candidates highlighted by organized labor.
Leigh Ann Pusey of the American Insurance Association said she is recruiting support for an advertising campaign "that would promote the free enterprise system and issues like regulatory and legal reform, lower taxes and spending. I'm not interested in just responding to labor, because frankly I don't think they were that successful."
Many politicians and campaign managers dislike the outside ads, if only because the practice blurs messages they are trying to send. Rich Bond, a veteran Republican consultant, said: "It takes the planning and strategy of campaigns almost totally out of your control. You plan on 1,000 ratings points [a measure of TV reach] for your close, and all of a sudden, there are 3,000 points from outside groups. It's like a space ship landing."
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