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Political Advocacy Case Reaches High Court

By CQ Staff

Here is a question guaranteed to make some of Washington's best-known political advocacy groups nervous: When do they have to disclose how they raise and spend money?

That issue is at the heart of a case on which the Supreme Court heard oral arguments Jan. 14. The justices have been asked to decide whether the Federal Election Commission (FEC) acted properly in refusing to subject the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to the stringent disclosure requirements of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971.

AIPAC is the nation's preeminent pro-Israel lobbying group, but it is not a political action committee. In 1992, the FEC found that the group had made campaign contributions in excess of $1,000 -- technically making it subject to the requirements of the 1971 law. But, citing several court rulings, the agency said AIPAC should be exempt from the disclosure provisions because its principal activity is lobbying, not funding candidates.

A federal appeals court essentially overruled the FEC in 1996, and the matter was brought to the Supreme Court.

There are several complex issues before the court, including whether the group of AIPAC opponents who initiated the case -- led by James E. Akins, formerly U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia -- have legal standing to sue the FEC. In fact, those threshold issues dominated the oral arguments. Some advocates of overhauling the campaign finance laws suggested that the FEC will be distracted by litigation unless it is protected from private lawsuits such as this one.

But the political advocacy groups will be watching closely to see if the justices tip their collective hand on the sensitive subject of compelling disclosure. Among the groups filing "friend of the court" briefs in the case was the National Right to Life Committee Inc., an anti-abortion rights lobby group.

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.
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Political Advocacy Case Reaches High Court

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