By Brian Summerfield, Online Editor, REALTOR® Magazine
Since the announcement of the REALTOR® Party Political Survival Initiative (or RPPSI, if you’re into unwieldy acronyms), the association, the magazine, and the REALTOR® Action Center have received quite a bit of feedback.
NAR Leadership has stood solidly behind the timing, scope, and level of funding proposed for the initiative, which was developed by a group of members appointed by 2010 NAR President Vicki Cox Golder. At the Board of Directors Meeting Saturday, the NAR directors voted overwhelmingly to approve the program and to fund it with a dues increase. Here’s why.
Q: Why now?
A: Not surprisingly, this is a complaint we’ve seen a lot. We’ve been in a rough patch for a while. Why are you doing this now, when REALTORS® can barely afford it? Believe us, we know. Whether it’s from NAR or other organizations’ research, anecdotal feedback from members, or headlines in major media outlets, there has been no shortage of bad news for real estate these past few years. This decision, however, is not driven at all by economic circumstances, but rather by the fact that we’re in a political “perfect storm, as 2003 NAR President Cathy Whatley termed it. Specifically, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling changed the game.
Q: OK, what was the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, exactly?
A: Back in 2008, a conservative non-profit group called Citizens United released an anti-Hillary Clinton film with the creative title, “Hillary: The Movie.” To promote the picture, the organization ran ads on TV 30 days prior to the Democratic presidential primaries. The U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia ruled that this was in violation of the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.
(Incidentally, Citizens United had alleged that ads that ran in 2004 for Michael Moore’s film “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which attacked the Bush Administration’s foreign policy, violated McCain-Feingold, but the FEC dismissed the complaint with the explanation that the movie was a “commercial enterprise.”)
The case eventually made its way up to the Supreme Court, which in 2010 ruled 5-4 in favor of Citizens United. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” That ruling also overturned soft money prohibition laws in 23 U.S. states.
Q: So, what are the implications of that decision?
A: Basically, it means that soft-money spigots have been turned on full blast. For a simple illustration of this, compare the total non-party committee spending tallies from the 2006 midterm elections to those of the 2010 midterms.
Q: Soft money, hard money, what’s the difference?
A: You hear these phrases tossed around a lot in explanations of RPPSI. Here’s what they mean, in the simplest terms possible:
▪ Hard money: Financial contributions made directly to a candidate in a primary or general election. The sources and amounts of these funds are regulated by the Federal Election Commission and subject to limits ($5,000 contribution per candidate by a political action committee).
▪ Soft money: Funds donated to political organizations to finance ads for candidates, against candidates, and in favor of or opposed to a specific political issue. McCain-Feingold banned national political parties from accepting these funds, but the Supreme Court’s ruling for Citizens United overturned that.
Now, special interests of all sizes and persuasions can make unlimited contributions to 527 organizations and political parties, which in turn spend money on ads that boost a particular candidate or issue, but are not coordinated or approved by the candidate.
Here’s how you can tell the difference: You know how you’ll hear something like, “I’m John J. Candidate, and I approve this message,” at the end of some radio or TV ads? That means it was financed with hard money. If you hear, “Paid for by Citizens Who Want to Get Rid of John J. Candidate, That Big Jerk,” that means it’s soft money.
Q: Does NAR benefit from the Citizens United ruling?
A: Not at all. Frankly, NAR was in a much more favorable position when soft money was more tightly controlled under McCain-Feingold. RPAC is the biggest PAC of its kind, but that’s not enough in the new political landscape. Now, the association has to compete with entities that are in a position to spend much more money.
Q: Will my dues go to a candidate I don’t like?
A: This is another major concern with RPPSI. The answer? Yes, your dues could possibly go toward candidates you wouldn’t support based on many of their positions. However, decisions to support candidate are not made rashly. Members of the association evaluate candidates’ stand on issues important to the real estate industry. Moreover, NAR is among the most bipartisan professional associations, and divides its political expenditures nearly evenly among Republicans and Democrats based on their positions and voting records on real estate issues.
But while much of the RPPSI debate has centered around this particular issue, as a share of overall RPPSI funds, the amount that goes to campaigns for individual candidates at all levels will represent less than 30 percent of the money collected over the next five years. Much more will go to mobilization, advocacy, and campaign-coordination efforts around state, local, and federal issues that affect real estate, ranging from the mortgage interest deduction to transfer taxes.
Q: If the initiative is so important, why doesn’t NAR just cut other programs or staff to fund it?
A: You can fault NAR for making spending decision you don’t agree with — but make sure you know the facts. NAR leaders, for example, are volunteers; they earn no salary for their work on behalf of the industry. On the staff side, NAR has made significant program cuts, eliminated positions, and frozen staff salaries and hiring. In the face of changing campaign finance rules and mounting regulatory and legislative challenges to the real estate industry, more cuts won’t put NAR in a strong position to advocate for the political survival of REALTORS®, the real estate industry, and home ownership.
Q: When does it take effect?
A: The $40 dues increase won’t kick in until 2012.
Got more questions? Let us know in the Comments section. Also, there are lots of resources to help you learn more at the REALTOR® Action Center and at http://www.realtor.org/topics/political_survival_initiative.