Deborah Goldberg

(WOMENSENEWS)–The National Right to Life Committee, once dedicated solely to overturning Roe v. Wade, has made defeating campaign reform laws of equal importance as ending legal abortion. Challenging campaign reform laws throughout the country, the group is now in federal court fighting reforms that will require disclosure of the hidden funders of election attack ads.

Litigation papers and other documents indicate that the National Right to Life is closely intertwined with the anti-choice wing of the Republican Party–an alliance that could be revealed if new campaign finance laws became effective.

“We know that the Republican Party gives money to the right-to-life groups,” said Deborah Goldberg, acting director of the Democracy Program of the Brennan Center for Justice in New York City, which is in court to support the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002. “The Republican platform is anti-choice, and the Republicans tend to have access to people with more money. It created a disadvantage in the system,” she said.

Pro-choice Republicans are also aware of –and dismayed by–the alliance between the National Right to Life Committee and elements of the political party’s leadership.

“We know the influence that the Right has on the party and we are working very hard with the Republican National Committee to point out that this is, in the end, going to be far more harmful than helpful,” said Samuel F. Pryor, co-chair of the New York Republican Pro-Choice Coalition. “The Republican moderates and the Republican pro-choice members are going to keep hammering at the national committee,” he added. (Pryor is also a member of Women’s eNews board of directors.)

The exact donors supporting the right-to-life committee’s activities are unknown. With an annual income of approximately $15 million in 2001, according to the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance, the committee is believed to receive substantial contributions from the Republican Party and related committees. The relationship was made clear in an affidavit filed in federal court by its executive director, David N. O’Steen, in October 2002. The committee “has received donations from political parties or committees,” he said. Although he does not state which party, 98 percent of those supported by the National Right to Life Committee are Republican.

O’Steen also related that “persons associated with political parties” have assisted the committee in raising funds. Republican Congressional Representative Henry Hyde of Illinois signed National Right to Life Committee fundraising letters in 1997 and 1998. At the time, Hyde, the force behind an array of anti-abortion measures, played a leading role in the impeachment of then-Democratic President Bill Clinton. Hyde also receives contributions from the National Right to Life Political Action Committee run by O’Steen.

Republican Party Delivers Dollars to Anti-Choice Group

Other documents indicate that hundreds of thousands of dollars have been delivered to the committee from the Republican Party. A Congressional report released in 1998 by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee on campaign finance revealed that in 1996 the Republican National Committee gave $650,000 to the National Right to Life Committee.

And, according to reports of the Federal Election Commission, the National Republican Senatorial Committee funneled $175,000 to National Right to Life Committee in 1994 for get-out-the-vote calls. “While the scripts did not mention party affiliation,” the Federal Election Commission said, the candidates promoted “were all Republicans.”

In 1999, Rep. Christopher Shays, a Republican moderate from Connecticut, complained that the National Republican Congressional Committee contributed $250,000 to National Right to Life Committee, according to the National Journal, a Washington-based publication covering politics.

The revelation should lay “to rest any notions of the Republican party as a ‘big tent’ with room for pro-choice points of view,” Ellen Malcolm, president of EMILY’s List, wrote in a newsletter. EMILY’s List raises campaign money for pro-choice Democrats.

And a 1996 publication, “A Bag Of Tricks Loopholes in the Campaign Finance System” by Lisa Rosenberg for watchdog group, the Center for Responsive Politics, said evidence pointed to National Right Life Committee as a “shadow campaign committee for Republican candidates,” that is, one tied to a political party but able to make expenditures free from disclosure requirements.

Follow the Money

Public disclosure is already required for expenditures or direct donations to candidates made through political action committees–called PACs–which are separate entities set up for that purpose. The National Right to Life Committee PAC spends as much as $3.5 million per election. In the 2000 presidential contest, it spent over $2.7 million to elect George W. Bush.

The National Right to Life Committee PAC also made large donations in the election of November 2002 that sealed a Republican and anti-choice majority in Congress, spending $1.9 million on 123 candidates.

Several conservative and anti-choice Republican Senators took their seats with the generous help of the National Right to Life PAC: $205,896 for Senator John Cornyn of Texas; $192,241 for Senator James Talent of Missouri; $126,899 for Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia; $122,051 for Senator Wayne Allard of Colorado; and $105,227 for Senator Elizabeth Dole. All voted last week in favor of a wide-ranging ban on abortion, the so-called “partial birth abortion,” a term which originated from the National Right to Life.

The PAC monies travel to candidates in a host of ways. For example, the National Right to Life PAC made direct donations to a campaign committee set up to support U.S. Representative Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican and head of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus. The committee’s PAC also gave money to the New Jersey Committee for Life, which in turn, made contributions to Smith. And the New Jersey group, in addition to finding the resources for the Texas Republican Cornyn, donated to the Spring Lake Pro-Life Friends of Federal Election Candidates, which made a another substantial donation to Smith.

Public Disclosure Is Key

Disclosure of political funds going to and from nonprofits was supposed to happen under Internal Revenue Service changes passed by Congress three years ago. Nonprofit organizations that attempt to influence elections must register with the IRS as “Section 527 groups” and file regular reports disclosing contributions and expenditures. National Right to Life registered a 527 group in 2000, but has not filed any reports, said Andrew Benore, an analyst with Public Citizen, a good-government group in Washington D.C. Public Citizen charges the IRS with massive failure in enforcing 527 reporting.

Thus, the total amount of money swirling among and between the National Right to Life Committee, its PAC, other pro-life political organizations, the Republican Party and party committees is not possible to determine.

James Bopp

In fact, the National Right to Life Committee, which runs hundreds of issue ads each election, is fighting to block disclosure of who is paying for the ads designed to draw support to candidates who back the committee’s political agenda. The group is represented by its longtime attorney, James Bopp Jr., active in the Republican Party and a convention delegate. Bopp handles the litigation through the James Madison Center for Free Speech, which he also heads. It was founded by Betsy DeVos, a member of the family that owns the massive direct sales company Amway and is noted for it’s election largess, contributing over $1 million in 1998 and over $750,000 in 2000, entirely to Republicans. DeVos also sits on the small James Madison board of directors, as do O’Steen and Wanda Franz, president of the National Right to Life Committee.

Bopp’s argument to the court against disclosing the committee’s donors is that campaign restrictions should only aim to root out corruption and bribery. In a court affidavit, the committee’s executive director O’Steen echoed Bopp’s position: “NRLC does not believe any of its activities corrupt or appear to corrupt any federal, state or local candidates or officeholders. NRLC and its members have various interests that are served through communications
and . . . these political activities are necessarily funded with money.”

A ruling on the challenge to campaign reform legislation, now before a three-judge panel in Washington, D.C., is expected this month.

Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist in New York City.

For more information:

Federal Election Commission–
“Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002”:

James Madison Center for Free Speech–
“Free Speech and Campaign Finance Reform”:

Public Citizen–
“Campaign Finance Reform”: