Canton Repository

November 21, 2003

Ney pursues inquiry into independent political committees

By PAUL M. KRAWZAK
Copley Washington correspondent

WASHINGTON — Rep. Bob Ney’s attempt to examine the activities of independent political organizations in the wake of campaign finance reform drew charges of partisanship from Democrats and independent organizations alike Thursday.

The campaign law passed by Congress last year bars national political parties from raising unregulated soft money, which they traditionally spent to boost their party and its candidates.

But as Ney noted, the same limitations do not apply to independent organizations, which are free to raise soft money and attempt to influence federal elections.

Ney, R-St. Clairsville, invited nine heads of independent groups to address the committee, in what he said would be an exploration of their political activities and “the extent to which the campaign finance laws have reallocated political power and resources in this country.”

The three heads of Republican-leaning organizations appeared, but the six who head Democratic-oriented groups wrote Ney earlier in the week to say they would not attend.

“We do not believe that the committee has a legitimate purpose in undertaking an open-ended inquiry into ongoing core First Amendment protected activities of private political groups,” said a letter signed by five of the heads, including Ellen Malcolm, president of the recently formed America Coming Together.

Ney accused the no-shows of thumbing their noses at Congress, and said they apparently didn’t feel “comfortable” discussing their organizations.

The issue has an unavoidable political dimension, since the majority of independent political committees support Democrats, who have been more dependent on unregulated contributions in the past.

Groups supportive of Democrats have accounted for almost two-thirds of the $450 million spent by independent committees since 2000, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a journalistic watchdog.

Democratic members of the committee protested the hearing, including Rep. John B. Larson, D-Conn., who called it a “partisan inquiry.”

Ney did not directly accuse independent organizations of violating campaign finance law, but he suggested this could be the case.

Recent press reports, he said, “indicate that wealthy individuals are funneling millions of dollars in soft money into ... groups for the purpose of supporting or defeating particular candidates.”

Ney said some of the groups have been formed as “shadow political party committees ... with the apparent blessing of federal officeholders and party officials to collect soft money to be spent in support of the party’s candidates and agenda.”

Democrats on the panel said if there were evidence organizations were breaking the law, Republicans should file a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service or Federal Election Commission, which both have regulatory authority over the independent groups.

But no complaint has been filed, said Larson, the ranking Democrat on the panel.

If Ney wants to examine possible violations of campaign finance reform, the probe should be expanded beyond independent political organizations, Larson said.

“Let’s take a look at all these circumstances,” said Larson, who suggested the Administration Committee join with the House Government Reform Committee in an investigation.

As the hearing ended, Ney secured the authority through a party-line vote to obtain subpoenas to compel heads of the organizations to appear before the committee. He did not say when he would issue subpoenas, but a spokesman said with Congress hoping to adjourn soon, the committee might not meet until early next year.

In a prepared response, Malcolm ripped the hearing as a “blatant, taxpayer-financed attempt, through innuendo and false charges, to try and discredit legitimate grass-roots political organizations who have a different agenda than the Republican majority in the House.”

Ney acknowledged he opposed the campaign finance reform legislation that passed last year.

“I would like to see this law repealed,” he said. “However, until it is, I will see that it is complied with.”