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Battling over social security

Several groups associated with 527s are now engaged in the dispute over Bush's plan to overhaul the entitlement program

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Interest groups that spent millions through their 527 committees in Election 2004 are now turning their sights on a different target: Social Security.

In recent weeks, a half-dozen organizations have begun fundraising, television and print campaigns to promote or oppose President Bush's plans to revamp the Social Security system.

How these groups—some of which were among the most active 527s in the 2003-2004 election—intend to fund their campaigns is unclear. All told, 527s raised and spent $550 million during the two-year cycle, according to an updated Center for Public Integrity analysis of disclosure forms filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

One group—Progress for America, which raised $45 million in the 2004 election through its 527—has already begun raising money for the effort. Others told the Center they have no plans as yet to use their 527s or have begun campaigning on the issue through other channels, such as their 501(c)(4) non-profit affiliates. Such 501(c)(4) groups are "social welfare" organizations which can lobby, as long as the lobbying fulfills their tax-exempt function.

By definition, 527s, named after the section of the tax code for political organizations, cannot directly contribute or coordinate with federal candidates. Yet many groups were still able to promote their choice for the White House this past election through myriad ways, such as advertising, direct mail and voter mobilization efforts.

As outlined in his State of the Union address, President Bush considers reforming Social Security a priority for his ambitious second-term agenda. Bush's focus on private accounts has become a contentious point between both sides of the political spectrum.

In favor of private accounts

Progress for America, a pro-Bush group linked to the 527, the Progress for America Voter Fund, anticipates spending more than $10 million on Social Security reform. PFA has already broadcast a national television ad promoting private accounts on CNN and Fox in January and has planned to release more ads in the coming weeks.

The Club for Growth—which opened a 527 account and used those funds to support the president in the 2004 election as well as target Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., in the Pennsylvania primary—has a budget of $10 million. The group has promised a long campaign as well; it posted a blog dedicated to Social Security reform and has broadcast television ads.

The Alliance for Worker Retirement Security—which was created to lobby the federal government on social security reform—is made up of more than 30 business trade associations and includes at least two 527 groups among its ranks: the Hispanic Business Roundtable and Black America's Political Action Committee.

Anti-private accounts

Campaign for America's Future, a labor-oriented group with a 527 account, has taken a lead role in a coalition of liberal groups, such as the NAACP, the National Organization for Women, and the Center for American Progress, to campaign against private accounts. On the day of Bush's State of the Union address, CAF helped organize press calls for spokespeople against private accounts.

The Alliance for Retired Americans, a non-profit group associated with the AFL-CIO and other unions, has voiced concern about Social Security reform on its Web site. TheAlliance for Retired Americans Voter Mobilization Fund is the group's 527 arm.

"We are going to model our campaign against privatization of Social Security the same way we fought against the prescription drug bill," said Edward Coyle, the Alliance's executive director. Coyle said there are no plans to use their 527 in the campaign.

MoveOn.org, which opposed George W. Bush during the 2004 election, has begun broadcasting a national television spot as well as placing a full page ad in The New York Times last week against private accounts. Tom Matzzie, MoveOn's Washington Director, says they will use the group's 501(c)(4) in the campaign instead of its 527, theMoveOn.org Voter Fund. Another branch of the group, MoveOn PAC, plans to remain active for the 2006 mid-term elections by building a ground campaign in every Congressional district to oppose Bush's policies, according to its Web site.

Stay tuned: the Center for Public Integrity will continue to track groups active in the Social Security debate.