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Focus on Issues Proposed Campaign Finance Changes Raise Concerns Among Jewish Groups

May 4, 2004
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A U.S. government bid to make clearer who supports and who opposes a political candidate could complicate the work of Jewish advocacy groups.A wide range of national Jewish organizations — led by the Reform movement and the National Council of Jewish Women — have joined hundreds of other groups in protesting rule changes to campaign finance law that could go in effect May 13.

That’s the deadline for comment on the rule changes, introduced March 11 by the Federal Election Commission, that would expand the definition of a political committee. Any group affected by the change would have to subject its fund raising to severely restrictive tax laws. It’s not at all certain whether the six-member FEC will pass the change. Two commissioners strongly support it, two strongly oppose it and two appear to be undecided.

Of central concern to Jewish groups is language that would redefine as a political committee any organization that spends money on material that “promotes, supports, attacks or opposes any clearly defined candidate for federal office.”

“How could a religious organization advocate, on either side, on an issue of profound moral significance without addressing the appropriate legislation’s sponsors and opponents, who are so often candidates for federal office?” Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, asked in testimony last month before the FEC.

Another concern is a change that would allow groups that encourage voter registration to maintain non-political status only if “information concerning likely party or candidate preference has not been used to determine which individuals to encourage to register to vote.”

Most synagogue congregations are known to favor one party or the other, Saperstein said.

“Fully aware of these ‘likely’ voting preferences, religious groups could be deterred from registering even their own congregations to vote,” he testified.

Reclassification as a political committee would invite Internal Revenue Service scrutiny of nonprofits and profoundly inhibit fund raising, nonprofit groups say.

“These rules impose a de facto gag that will impoverish the debate on public policy, diminish civic engagement and force many nonprofits to choose between the lesser of two evils,” Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, said in testimony.

Among the hundreds of groups that signed the alliance’s letter to the FEC were Hadassah, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

“We feel very strongly that this proposed legislation would have a very chilling effect on our missions, which includes trying to influence public policy,” said Sammie Moshenberg, the National Council of Jewish Women’s Washington representative. The council sent its own letter, also signed by the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, to the FEC.

The proposed changes arise from last year’s Supreme Court ruling on the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law restricting unlimited “soft money.” The court upheld many of the law’s restrictions on virtually unlimited contributions to political parties, but it threw out restrictions on advocacy against a candidate and voter- registration drives as too broad and restrictive of free-speech rights.

A proliferation of groups arose since then, operating within the letter of the law and the Supreme Court ruling by campaigning hard against a candidate — but abjuring any hint of a formal relationship with an opponent’s party.

Those groups already have produced attack ads targeting President Bush and his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

The two commissioners proposing the change are concerned that the “527s” — named for their tax code classification — are making an end-run around the soft money restrictions.

Opponents of the rule change say it’s no coincidence that the lead commissioner proposing the change, Michael Toner, is a former Republican National Committee chief counsel and a member of Bush’s transition team, and that the other commissioner promoting the changes is Scott Thomas, a Reagan appointee.

Republicans, with a wealthier base, are much better at raising money according to the new $2,000-per-donor limit. Democrats traditionally have relied to a greater extent on advocacy groups.

The vast majority of negative campaigning has targeted Bush., which has produced some of the most effective anti-Bush ads and is credited in part with keeping Bush’s approval ratings under 50 percent, is a 527.

Saperstein also observed that the rule changes would have obstructed the Reform movement’s support for Bush on a number of issues in recent years.

Some of the groups leading the effort to restrict 527s say Toner and Thomas are going too far, accusing the two of using a mallet to swat a fly.

“Rather than focusing this rulemaking on the precise issues presented by the ongoing violations of the law, the Commission has instead chosen to broadly overreach by proposing new rules that extend far beyond what is necessary to deal with the immediate problem,” said a submission from the Center for Responsive Politics, which leads efforts to shut down the 527s. “This rulemaking threatens to broadly sweep into ‘political committee’ status a whole range of non-profit groups that have not been, and cannot be, subject to this regulation.”

“We believe it is ill-advised for the FEC to undertake a rulemaking that would affect entities other than those organized under section 527 of the tax code,” the senators wrote in a recent letter to their colleagues.

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