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Sweet Column: House votes to close ``527'' loophole. UPDATE: House leaving for Spring Break on Friday-- will work on ethics bills when they return.

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House committees working on ethics and lobbying reform packages are expected to finishing writing legislation this week.

As I write this, House members narrowly voted to close loopholes in campaign finance rules that allowed millions of unregulated dollars into the 2004 federal elections.

Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), in the chair wielding the gavel, announced that a GOP-promoted plan passed on a 218-209 roll call that ran mainly along party lines.

Legislation cracking down on so-called 527 groups has nothing to do with the ethics and lobbying scandals rocking Congress, which contributed to the announcement Tuesday by Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) that he is stepping down.

Five House committees are working on ethics proposals and should be moving them along this week. But the powerful Republican-controlled House Rules Committee already rejected a string of provisions, including two proposed by Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) that would have curbed pay-to-play politics and slowed down the revolving door, where lawmakers who leave the House within hours transform themselves into all-but- in-name lobbyists.

So Wednesday's House floor action was a diversionary tactic if you were looking for a response to the scandals that took down DeLay and enveloped former DeLay staffers and convicted GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Plus there is former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) who resigned and now faces prison time for basically selling his seat and the federal probes surrounding Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.).

But back to the 527s.

It's reasonable public policy to close the door that allowed George Soros to bankroll Democratic-allied groups and a few Republicans to fund Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth with relatively little public disclosure. These 527 groups have been operating outside federal campaign laws, and if the GOP House leaders had their way, they would be treated more like political action committees.

The nickname 527 refers to the section of the Internal Revenue Code that hands tax-exempt status to certain types of organizations with a political agenda but are not political parties or campaigns. These groups bloomed in the 2004 presidential campaign, the first test of how federal elections would be funded under the new era ushered in by the McCain-Feingold campaign reform act of 2002. According to the Congressional Research Service, the new players spent more than $400 million "seeking to influence the outcome" of the Bush-Kerry contest.

McCain-Feingold was supposed to end millions of dollars of "soft money" being dumped into political parties. (Presidential, House and Senate campaigns are not allowed to take money from corporations, labor and outsized sums from wealthy individuals.)

Most of the $400 million was spent to help Democrats, and that's why Democrats resisted shutting down the 527 loophole. The Democrat and Republican 527s were operating with the fiction that they were not trying to elect either President Bush or Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.)

Some Republicans were targeting America Coming Together, and the Media Fund. In the end, these groups ended up as a sort of parallel Democratic Party, running their own ads, field organizations and direct mail campaigns.

If the Club for Growth, a conservative organization, and MoveOn were operating under the rules the House passed Wednesday, someone like Soros could not give millions -- only the same $5,000 an individual could give to a PAC.

Now after going through this exercise, it can't be said that this change in 527s will ever become law. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was adamant in not wanting to put 527 regulation in the Senate mix when that chamber voted last week on its watered-down ethics and lobbying legislation.

And a closing note: For more than a year, the House ethics committee, officially known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, has been virtually moribund. Unlike every other House committee where the Republicans have a majority, this one is evenly split five-five between Democrats and Republicans. Each side is blaming the other to explain why the committee is barely functioning.

On Wednesday, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in a "privileged resolution," asked for an ethics probe of all members implicated in the sleazy (my word, not hers) dealings of Abramoff. She insisted on a roll call vote and it went pretty much on party lines. Pelosi was defeated 218-198 (six Republicans voted with Democrats).

Pelosi made a point and got a roll call, which I suppose Democrats can -- probably will -- use against GOP incumbents. Republicans also have their vote on the 527s they are already using against Democrats. Match today. But the game is not over.

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on April 6, 2006 6:39 AM.

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