Political Committee Status – Testimony of Wade Henderson

Media 07.14.04

Location: Senate Committee on Rules and Administration

I am Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. LCCR is the nation’s oldest, largest, and most diverse civil and human rights coalition with more than 180 organizations representing persons of color, women, children, workers, individuals with disabilities, older Americans, major religious groups, gays and lesbians, and civil liberties and human rights groups. LCCR is one of the co-founders of the Coalition to Save Non-Profit Advocacy.

I am here today because of the profound concern in the civil rights community about the nature and timing of the commission’s “notice of proposed rulemaking” regarding political committee status of non-profit organizations. We worry that in a rush to resolve what is a perceived problem, the commission will fundamentally weaken our democracy.

The groups we represent include 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) not-for-profit organizations, some of which have connected 527 organizations. Some of our member organizations supported passage of the “Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act”; others did not. Nonetheless, we all engage in a broad range of currently protected activities, which would now run afoul of the commission’s proposed rule. We strongly believe that the proposed rule threatens First Amendment rights of free speech and association for all of us. The need for these protections cannot be overstated. Without the constitutional guarantees of the First Amendment, there would not have been a civil rights movement. Is it really the intent of the FEC to strike broadly at the values that we all hold dear?

In the words of Justice Louis Brandeis: “Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficent…the greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”

LCCR and the organizations that we represent work in a bipartisan manner to make the dream of equal protection of the law a reality for all Americans. We work closely with members of Congress and administration appointees. To accomplish our goals, we must advocate to, persuade, and sometimes criticize elected officials. Several of our member organizations encourage citizens to register to vote and to participate in elections, particularly African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, persons with disabilities, newly enfranchised citizens, and the nation’s voter-eligible youth. And, we educate voters on a full range of civil rights and civil liberties issues. We do this not because we have a parochial concern for particular candidates but rather because we care about the issues that office holders have the power to impact.

As we understand it, the following examples would not be allowed under the commission’s proposed rule:

Communications on issues

In order to educate Americans about the importance of the federal courts and the threats posed by some of President Bush’s extremist judicial nominees, LCCR has used print and multi-media ads. One such video ad criticized President Bush’s nomination of right-wing ideologue Charles Pickering, and was distributed via the web to activists across the country.

LCCR Voting Record

At the end of each session of Congress, LCCR produces a non-partisan voting record that tracks how all 535 members of the House and Senate have voted on LCCR priority issues. The Voting Record is distributed widely to our 180 member organizations, the media, members of Congress, the grassroots, and other interested parties. The LCCR Voting Record is an important tool to educate all citizens on the full range of civil rights issues that have been considered by their members of Congress in the preceding session.

And yet, under the redefinitions of expenditure in the FEC’s proposed rule, these activities would be prohibited altogether or transform our organizations into “political committees” bound by the donation regulations of federal election laws. Such a transformation could be crippling not only to our organizations, but also to our democracy.

It is as true today that “Disfranchisement is the deliberate theft and robbery of the only protection of poor against rich; and black against white,” as when noted by W.E.B. Du Bois decades ago.

These proposed rules would seriously undermine the constitutional guarantees on which LCCR organizations depend to carry out their missions; and we sincerely hope you reconsider the rulemaking endeavor in which you are engaged.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.