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Democrats fall off campaign finance reform wagon

Published March 14, 2004

Well, what do you know. Soft money is back, and it's making hypocrites of all those Democrats who fervently championed the McCain-Feingold campaign reform law, not to mention those Republicans who objected to the law's restrictions on issue advocacy.

Like the boll weevil, soft money is always looking for a home, and it didn't take Democrats long to put out a welcome mat at their party's back door. Was it only last year that reformers in both parties were warning of the corrupting influence of soft money on politics and government? Something had to be done to save our democracy, the reformers decided, and so they passed McCain-Feingold, which barred political parties from raising unregulated soft money in unlimited donations from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals. Opponents warned that soft money would just find new venues, and that it has done.

There are two things you can't take out of politics - politics and money.

Soft money is being used in this election year to fund mostly Democratic "shadow" groups dedicated to defeating President George W. Bush. These tax-exempt groups are called 527 committees - after the Internal Revenue Service code section under which they fall - and they make a mockery out of the new law's restrictions on the use of soft money.

The chief sponsors of last year's bipartisan campaign reform law, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., are crying foul. They accused the 527 committees of violating the law and urged the Federal Election Commission, known for its laxity in enforcing campaign laws, to place tight restrictions on these groups' use of soft money to influence federal elections. Their position is applauded by Republicans and supported by several independent campaign watchdog groups.

"Section 527 groups need to play by the rules that all other political committees are bound by," McCain said last week. He said the use of soft money by 527 groups violates not only the McCain-Feingold law but "a fundamental rule of federal election law since 1974."

Feingold said "the FEC must not bless a new circumvention of election laws so soon after we closed the last loophole it created." In upholding McCain-Feingold in December, the U.S. Supreme Court scolded the FEC for opening loopholes over the years that allowed "national parties to use vast amounts of soft money to elect federal candidates."

The Wisconsin Democrat said, "My view is that groups that claim a tax exemption because their primary purpose is to influence elections should be required to register as political committees with the FEC, unless their activities are entirely directed at state and local elections."

Last month the FEC ruled that 527 groups registered as federal political committees must use hard money - or contributions subject to federal limits - to pay for ads that "promote, support, attack or oppose" a federal candidate. It is scheduled to decide in May what further restrictions, if any, should be placed on the use of soft money by these groups for political advertising.

It's no secret that issue advertising is a thinly veiled attempt to help or hurt a candidate with voters. For example, last week a 527 group called the Media Fund - which is run by Bill Clinton's former deputy chief of staff - partnered with voter fund in airing anti-Bush ads in 17 states that will be key battlegrounds in this year's presidential election.

"George Bush's priorities are eroding the American dream," the ad begins. Although it doesn't say vote for Democrat John Kerry or against George W. Bush, voters get the message. The ad concludes: "When it comes to choosing between corporate values and family values, face it. George Bush is not on our side."

It's not surprising that liberal Democrats have fallen off the campaign reform wagon and are setting up 527 groups to rake in the soft-money contributions that used to go to the national parties. Yes, it makes them look hypocritical, but they contend Republicans have a huge advantage over Democrats in raising hard-money contributions that are limited to $2,000 per person (the Bush campaign has raised $150-million so far, but the Democratic presidential candidates collectively raised $170-million). Besides, Democrats argue that the 527 groups are a way to educate voters to help them make informed choices on Election Day.

By all means let's educate voters and enfranchise them. Bring on the issue advertising and keep it honest. But if we're going to regulate soft money, let's regulate it across the board and not open up new loopholes that make a farce of our campaign finance laws.

- Philip Gailey's e-mail address is

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