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January 30, 2008

Why Is Obama Popular With 527s?

He says he doesn't like them, and he says he doesn't need them. In fact, Barack Obama regularly criticizes the operations and the influence of 527s, scolding John Edwards and Hillary Clinton for their attraction to the outside political groups. But as the New York Times points out, Obama has become attractive to them as well, and benefits significantly from their assistance:

After months of denouncing the influence of special-interest money in politics, Senator Barack Obama is nonetheless entering a critical phase of the presidential campaign benefiting from millions of dollars being spent outside campaign finance rules.

Mr. Obama has repudiated a California group, Vote Hope, that is working on his behalf. But it has pressed on and, along with a sister organization called, is planning to spend up to $4 million promoting him in California and conducting voter registration drives aimed at blacks in 11 Southern states.

The group has already run radio advertisements with local ministers in South Carolina. New advertisements, some for television, have been prepared for California, one with the rap star Common and others focusing on black and Latino voters.

As the campaign treasuries of Mr. Obama and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton are rapidly draining heading into the nominating contests in more than 20 states on Tuesday, independent political groups — whether so-called 527 groups, political action committees, nonprofit organizations or trade unions — are stepping in to help fill the void. The efforts of these groups, particularly 527s, which are named for a section of the tax code under which they fall, worry campaign finance watchdogs because many can take unlimited contributions from donors and have limited oversight.

Voters should ask why 527s exist in the first place. They grew in the dark, like fungus, from the peculiarities of campaign finance legislation -- the kind espoused by the same watchdogs worried now about their influence. The crusaders tried to chase money out of the process by limiting donations and classifying cash as "hard" and "soft", forcing people who wanted to contribute to the process to find other vehicles for their political activism.

Now that money gets raised and spent outside of the control of the campaigns and the political parties. That reduces the accountability for both functions, creating risks for candidates as well as some legal firewalls. If a 527 breaks the law, lies about an opponent, or acts unethically in some other manner, the candidate can claim some separation from its operations, but it still does plenty of political damage to the campaign. The entire process encourages dirty politics while limiting the ability of the principals to put a stop to it or for the voters to hold them accountable for their actions.

It also allows candidates like Obama to lament the existence of 527s while benefiting from their work. Obama, Edwards, and Clinton all served in the Senate, and Obama and Clinton still do. If they wanted to eliminate 527s, they could have proposed their elimination. Better yet, they could have demanded an end to three decades of futility on campaign-finance reform and instead focus on removing limits in favor of immediate and full disclosure of all donations and expenditures, allowing the voters to determine for themselves whether the funding sources represent their interests. All we have done in 34 years since Watergate is further obfuscate the money trails and the accountability.

We've heard enough laments about 527s and their operations. If Senators running for the Presidency haven't introduced bills that eliminate the problem by this time, then they're simply not serious about the problem.


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