Senate Passes Disclosure Bill

Thursday, June 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress sent President Clinton legislation forcing secretive groups to say who is paying for campaign-style TV ads, radio spots and phone calls that are being used to influence elections across the country.

The overwhelming 92-6 vote in the Senate Thursday followed resounding passage two days ago in the House. It gives the president the opportunity to sign the first significant campaign finance measure in two decades.

Clinton, who has called passing the bill ``a big deal,'' appears eager to sign it.

The legislation would affect groups that have seized on a once-obscure section of the tax code to conduct unlimited political activity without reporting anything about themselves to the public.

It would require these newly popular, tax-exempt groups to report most donors and spending to the Internal Revenue Service.

``It is not an attempt to silence anyone. It is an attempt to give the American people information,'' said Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis.

Backers vowed to build on the overwhelming vote to pass other campaign finance legislation.

``Today is only the first step,'' said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who built a presidential bid around his campaign for finance reform. ``It is indeed a great day for democracy.''

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who leads the Senate's opposition to campaign finance overhaul, was one of a handful senators to vote against the disclosure bill.

He said that while the legislation would not put Republicans at a disadvantage in the fall elections, it is ``arguably unconstitutional'' because it requires disclosure of donors who pay for ``issue ads,'' which stop short of telling people who to vote for, though they look just like regular campaign commercials.

Many interest groups that are not covered by the legislation run these types of ads as well, and they, too, do not disclose their donors.

``Nevertheless, I'd say to my Republican colleagues, particularly those up for re-election, that's pretty hard to explain,'' McConnell said.

``I do not think this is a spear worth falling on four months before an election.''

He suggested groups affected by the bill will either disband or fight the measure in court.

McCain, Feingold and allies hope to translate this week's action into more substantial campaign finance reform. Larger reforms would limit the amount of money that flows into campaigns and how it is used. This bill simply forces the same sort of disclosure rules on some independent groups that already apply to candidates and political parties.

The legislation would require tax-exempt groups that register under the newly popular section 527 of the tax code to say who is paying for their political activities, including TV ads and other attempts to influence elections.

Section 527 has been in the tax code since 1975, but only recently has it become the vehicle of choice for donors who want to remain anonymous.

Opponents argue that requiring disclosure would discourage Americans from participating in the political process. McConnell noted that the Supreme Court has said that groups are not required to report to the Federal Election Commission if they do not ``expressly advocate'' for a candidate.

Relying on this rationale, interest groups have escaped campaign finance regulations by avoiding c words such as ``vote for'' or ``vote against,'' even as they air TV and radio ads that sound much like campaign spots.

Under the legislation, any group organizing under section 527 would have to report its existence to the Internal Revenue Service within 24 hours.

It also would require disclosure of donors and spending for any 527 group that raises at least $25,000 a year but does not already report to the FEC. They would have to report contributions of $200 or more and spending of $500 or more.

Using a 527, a pair of Texas brothers ran $2.5 million in ads praising Texas Gov. George W. Bush and attacking McCain in the days before a crucial GOP primary election. Another 527 with ties to House Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, is working to raise $25 million to help a variety of Republicans running for Congress.

And one of the oldest 527s is the Sierra Club, which is running an $8 million campaign boosting Democrats running for Congress and attacking Bush's record in Texas.

The bill would take effect the day Clinton signs it. Groups will not have to reveal donations made before then.