Democrats Dodge Campaign Finance Law with Environment 2004

Published February 1, 2004

Taking advantage of campaign finance laws that restrict direct contributions to political candidates but allow unrestricted contributions to “issues” advocacy, several former Clinton administration officials have begun raising money to target President George W. Bush’s environmental record during the upcoming election.

Referring to itself as “Environment 2004,” the new group consists of such Clinton notables as former EPA Administrator Carol Browner, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, and former Undersecretary of Global Affairs Frank Loy. Environment 2004 has so far raised $500,000 to attack the Bush environment record and has set a goal of raising $5 million by the November 2004 election.

According to the December 5 Chicago Tribune, “The organization is structured to take advantage of loopholes in campaign finance laws that allow independent interest groups to gather unlimited ‘soft money’ contributions that candidates and political parties are no longer allowed to accept.”

Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Service Code allows groups such as Environment 2004 to give unlimited political funding for running so-called “issue ads”–ads that do not directly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate. Critics charge Environment 2004 pushes the envelope regarding its Rule 527 status by explicitly stating on its Web site that its purpose and mission are “solely focused on promoting environmental issues to defeat George Bush and his Republican allies.”

Admittedly Partisan

Said Heather Layman, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, “[Environment 2004] is just the latest example of the Democrat plan to work outside the campaign finance system by using unregulated soft-money groups to defeat the President.”

Environment 2004 admits on its Web site that it is a “partisan” group eager to “work closely with the Democratic Presidential nominee.”

“Under applicable laws and regulations,” states the group’s Web site, “Environment 2004 has an unrestricted ability to communicate with its members on matters relating to the 2004 elections, including asking members to organize rallies and get out the vote to benefit Democratic candidates.”

Jan Baran, former general counsel for the Republican National Committee, explained how Environment 2004 and similar groups can raise and spend hundreds of millions of dollars that are forbidden to parties and individual candidates. The groups can air television commercials until the final two months of the election, and “they can do direct mail, they can do phone banks, they can do billboards, they can do print advertisements” through election day.

Focus on Florida

Making its initial foray into Presidential politics, Environment 2004 hosted a December 5 press conference at the Florida Democratic convention. “As a native Floridian,” said Browner at the convention, “I am saddened and outraged that our work to protect our fragile environment could be undone by an administration that enables polluters to evade environmental safeguards with impunity.” Browner further lambasted the President for “efforts of this administration and its allies to auction off Florida’s natural resources to the highest bidder at the expense of their health and the state’s economy.”

Browner offered few specifics to substantiate her charges, nor did she offer many Florida-specific examples of Bush’s environmental record. Her most Florida-specific allegation was that Bush “allowed special interests to delay” a landmark Everglades restoration program–a program created and implemented through the cooperation of President Bush and Governor Jeb Bush.

Florida will be one of several states targeted by Environment 2004 during the coming Presidential campaign. According to the group’s Web site, “In a small handful of battleground states, Environment 2004 will educate and mobilize voters who care about the protection of our environment. We expect the states to be chosen from among the following: Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Wisconsin. Environment 2004 will use sophisticated polling and voter identification tools to ensure the views of environmental voters are heard at the polls.”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].