By JIM KUHNHENN
As Congress considers new restrictions on political activity by outside groups, advocacy groups are expanding their influence in elections through organizations that operate legally but with fewer disclosure regulations.
The Campaign Finance Institute, in a study of 12 leading politically active groups covering election cycles since 2000, found nine groups that are attempting to influence elections through nonprofit entities that can collect unlimited amounts of money but are not required to disclose their donors.
The findings illustrate the shifting campaign finance landscape since Congress adopted sweeping legislation in 2002 that banned unlimited donations, called "soft money," to the political parties. It also points out the difficulty facing lawmakers as they attempt to regulate campaign financing.
"If you try to regulate one of them, the money can move to the other," said Stephen R. Weissman, an author of the study.
The House version of pending lobbying reform legislation would limit donations to the so-called 527 organizations that emerged in the 2004 presidential campaign, such as the liberal America Coming Together and the conservative Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
The study, however, found that leading politically active groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Sierra Club and the National Rifle Association, are using their nonprofit arms to engage in political campaigns.
Those entities are known as 501(c) organizations after the section of the federal tax code that governs them. Generally, the Internal Revenue Service permits such groups to engage in partisan campaign activities provided that is not their primary function.
Leaders of campaign watchdog groups, at a symposium Wednesday, disagreed over whether such nonprofit groups would become a prevalent electioneering vehicle or whether they deserved new restrictions.
"They’re not going to be the raw political groups that 527s groups were," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. "There’s no evidence that there will be a wholesale shift."
Other groups using their nonprofit entities for political activities, according to the study: The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Americans for Job Security, MoveOn.org., the National Right to Life Committee, Planned Parenthood, and the Service Employees International Union.
Vernon Robinson, a conservative Republican whose fiery campaign ads have become an Internet phenomenon, continues to rank among the nation’s most successful congressional fundraisers.
Robinson, who has never held an office higher than a seat on the Winston-Salem City Council, collected $520,000 in the past 2 1/2 months — a total that puts him on par with some of the top members of Congress.
Robinson’s success relies on a mix of attack politics and modern communication. In one radio ad, Robinson tells listeners as mariachi music plays that if his opponent had his way, "America would be nothing but one big fiesta for illegal aliens and homosexuals."
His appeals to conservatives across the nation helped Robinson raise $521,021 between April 13 and June 30, according to his latest campaign finance report. While not the most of any candidate, it was the best among all House candidates in North Carolina, both incumbent and challenger. It also topped the $493,138 raised by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and $235,869 by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., between April 1 and June 30.
A Robinson Web video opens with "The Twilight Zone" theme, and a narrator saying: "The aliens are here, but they didn’t come in a spaceship. They came across our unguarded Mexican border by the millions."
While Robinson has never paid to air the ad on television, it has been viewed more than 30,000 times on the video Web site YouTube, many more times on Robinson’s campaign site and has been the subject of discussion on radio, television and the Internet.
Robinson’s opponent, Democratic Rep. Brad Miller raised $362,126 in the last quarter, but still leads in overall fundraising in the current election cycle with $968,000 to Robinson’s $765,000. Miller has $540,736 in cash on hand; Robinson has $426,346.
More than 99 percent of Robinson’s money comes from individual donors, with 80 percent originating outside of North Carolina.
Democrats want to give states $150 billion over 10 years and create a $3,000 tuition tax credit to make college more affordable — but first they have to win back control of Congress.
"Is there another question?" Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, asked jokingly when a reporter questioned how Democrats will pay for the programs with Republicans in power.
The proposals come with a spending plan, Vilsack said, and are part of a larger package called the "American Dream Initiative" that the group of centrist Democrats will announce at a meeting in Denver this weekend. It includes policies on home ownership and health care.
Vilsack, who is considering a presidential bid, joined a potential rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, at a news conference unveiling the plan.
One proposal calls for giving states $150 billion over the decade based on a number of factors, including graduation rates and controlling tuition costs. Another would revamp the college tax credit system to provide a single, refundable $3,000 tuition tax credit, replacing several existing tax credits.
Associated Press Writer Mike Baker in Raleigh, N.C., and Liz Sidoti in Washington contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Vernon Robinson: http://www.vernonrobinson.com
Brad Miller: http://www.bradmiller.org