Campaign Finance Reform: A Sourcebook

By Anthony Corrado; Thomas E. Mann et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
ISSUE ADVOCACY AND EXPRESS ADVOCACY

INTRODUCTION BY TREVOR POTTER

Political issue advocacy exploded into the public consciousness during the 1996 congressional and presidential elections. Organizations and interest groups saturated the local radio and television airwaves across the country with issue-oriented advertisements, with the stated purpose of shaping public opinion on selected policy matters. The Democratic National Committee initiated the air wars as early as 1995 with advertisements designed to bolster President Clinton's support by portraying him as saving the nation from the Republican Congress. The AFL-CIO followed up with an announcement of a $35 million advertising campaign attacking the legislative records of potentially vulnerable Republican House incumbents (especially freshmen members). In the summer of 1996, a business coalition responded with advertising praising the congressional voting records of the incumbent Republicans in those districts.

Moreover, the Democratic and Republican national committees ran "issue ads" featuring their presidential nominees before the party conventions (see document 7.1). This was important for the Republicans, as the Dole campaign had nearly reached its primary spending limit in March 1996, five months before the party's August convention. After the conventions, many other issue groups-- usually tax-exempt 501 (c)(4) organizations (the Sierra Club, Americans for Tax Reform, and others)--took to the airwaves with significant expenditures for "issue ads" in targeted districts and states.

Because these "issue advocacy" advertisements were designed to avoid the narrow legal definition of federal election spending, the sponsors were free to underwrite the campaigns with money that is prohibited or severely restricted when used in connection with federal elections--including corporate and labor treasury funds and unlimited individual contributions. Moreover, because the advertisements were not deemed to be "in connection with a federal election," the sponsoring organizations were not required to disclose the sources of their funding, or where and how it was spent.

To many observers, these issue advertisements were clearly designed to influence the outcome of selected congressional races and the presidential contest. Indeed, on occasion the sponsors proudly claimed that the advertisements had achieved this goal. In some congressional districts, unlimited and undisclosed funds spent on "issue" broadcasts and mailers exceeded that spent by the candidates themselves. There are now calls for disclosure of "issue advocacy," and regulation of its funding. But what exactly is issue advocacy, and where did it come from?

Simply stated, issue advocacy has come to mean political speech that may mention specific candidates or political parties but does not "expressly advocate" the election or defeat of a clearly identified federal candidate through the use of words such as "vote for," "oppose," "support," and the like. As a legal construct, issue advocacy was created by the U.S. Supreme Court when it narrowed the reach of the federal election laws in the Buckley v. Valeo decision, 424 U.S. 1 ( 1976); see document 7.3). Al-

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