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Congress moves to curb 'stealth PACs'

Surprise passage of House bill is victory for campaign-finance reform movement.

Campaign-finance reform - until recently the great lost cause of the 106th Congress - is headed for its first victory in more than 20 years.

The sudden move represents an attempt to limit one of the most objectionable new ways to finance campaigns -so-called stealth political action committees. It also represents a rebuff to the Republican leadership in the House.

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In a surprise vote late Tuesday night, the House passed (385-39) a bill that closes a loophole in campaign-finance law dealing with the specialized groups.

The terms of the House bill were nearly identical to one that Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona helped guide through the Senate on June 8. Both bills require secretive groups organized under Section 527 of the US tax code to disclose their funding sources.

Polls show that the public supports limiting the impact of money in elections. But until this month, efforts to reform campaign-finance laws have consistently derailed.

Supporters say the sudden movement is due to the new visibility and clout Mr. McCain is bringing to the issue.

"A lot of what's made the difference is John McCain. He has risen to a level in this Congress above anyone else - and he came up with the right bill at the right time," said Rep. Michael Castle (R) of Delaware, a sponsor of campaign-finance reform in the House, speaking at a Monitor breakfast yesterday.

The GOP leadership has opposed campaign-finance reform, because they see it as giving an edge to Democrats, who enjoy solid support from unions.

But the rapid deployment of 527 stealth groups unsettled many incumbents, who worried that new and undisclosed money could hijack their campaigns.

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"We're looking at 40 close congressional races this year that will probably top $7 million in campaign spending - about $3 million by candidates and $4 million by outside groups," says Representative Castle. "We're now entering a stage where outside groups will spend more money than the candidates will."

GOP lawmaker Marge Roukema says that a 527 group funded largely outside the state put at least $300,000 into an effort that nearly defeated her in this month's New Jersey primary.

"These unidentified, anonymous rich people from K Street in Washington and outside the state were trying to dictate how this district should vote with the hundreds and thousands they poured into the campaign," Representative Roukema says. "In a democracy like ours, it's not right that there is no disclosure."

House sponsors had hoped for a broader bill that would include broader disclosure requirements for other groups contributing to federal campaigns, including corporations, trade unions, and right-to-life groups.

But after an intense weekend of "horsetrading," including steady consultations with Senator McCain, they concluded that the most feasible way to achieve something this term was to limit the bill to 527s.

"We realized we ought to take what we could get," says Castle. "It will be the first campaign-finance reform legislation to be signed in Washington, D.C. in a long time."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society


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