Supporters mull next move in campaign-finance fight
By The Associated Press
Editor's note: The Associated Press reported that the Christian Coalition on Sept. 13 withdrew its lawsuit challenging the new campaign-finance law, saying it wanted to focus on the fall elections and its legislative priorities.
WASHINGTON The ink barely dry on a hard-won law overhauling federal campaign-finance rules, its supporters are turning to new battles in their war on big money in politics.
Next up for Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold: developing legislation to strengthen enforcement of campaign-finance laws and pushing to block loopholes from weakening a newly passed ban on unlimited contributions to political parties.
McCain, R-Ariz., and Feingold, D-Wis., became nationally known for their long struggle to win passage of the "soft-money" ban, recently signed into law by President Bush. But for all the fanfare that accompanied the bill's triumph in Congress, after years of falling short, it appears the campaign-finance fight is far from over.
"It will never be over," said the Rev. Timothy O'Brien, a Marquette University political science professor.
The new law is facing several court challenges. The National Rifle Association and a group headed by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., filed lawsuits soon after Bush signed the legislation. Each group contends the law violates the First Amendment's free-speech protections.
The Christian Coalition and a group of teen-agers have followed with separate lawsuits. The Christian Coalition is contesting provisions that it believes would make it illegal to send out voter guides before an election. The teens, meanwhile, are challenging language that bars minors 17 years and younger from making political contributions.
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, which filed the suit on behalf of the six teens, said he expects a dozen suits to be brought against the new law. He said the court may issue consolidation orders this week, with McConnell expected to be the lead plaintiff.
But O'Brien says the campaign-finance fight won't be over even if the new law survives the court challenges. If the law takes effect after the November elections as scheduled, it will take about two years for ways around it to emerge, he predicted.
"And then there will be calls by Feingold and McCain to amend this legislation to get rid of these loopholes," O'Brien said.
For now, the two senators are focusing on how the new law will be enforced. That job currently falls to the Federal Election Commission; McCain and Feingold are working on legislation to overhaul the agency.
McCain believes the FEC "has become an ineffective and toothless commission committed to preserving the status quo instead of enforcing campaign-finance reform laws," his spokeswoman, Nancy Ives, said.
The legislation's details are still being worked out, she said.
The FEC is made up of three Republicans and three Democrats. Some self-styled good-government groups such as Washington-based Democracy 21 are pushing for a full makeover for the agency, contending its commissioners are too close to the political parties they are charged with regulating.
McConnell said he would oppose any attempt to alter the commission's makeup or turn the agency into "speech police."
"The model for the FEC is the same model used for the Senate and House ethics committees," he said. "It is designed to prevent either side from terrorizing the other and to weed out ridiculous complaints, of which the FEC gets a massive number."
Democracy 21 founder Fred Wertheimer said an FEC overhaul is just one of three changes he is seeking.
Wertheimer said he views the recently passed soft-money ban as a starting point for campaign-finance legislation. He also wants Congress to provide public financing and free or low-cost TV time for congressional candidates and change public financing for presidential candidates.
"Campaign finance is about the role of money in politics, the ability of money to corrupt democracy," Wertheimer said. "That's an ongoing issue in democracies in countries all over the world for as long as you've had governments."
Campaign-finance watchdogs are also taking aim at the nonprofit groups playing an ever-increasing role in politics.
McCain and Feingold want to block House legislation they contend would create a loophole in the soft-money ban by making it easier for some politically active nonprofit groups to hide large contributions.
The bill, H.R. 3991, approved last month by a House committee, would free tax-exempt groups known as 527s that focus on state and local politics from having to disclose their existence or financial activities to the Internal Revenue Service. Such groups typically run ads on political issues without mentioning specific candidates.
McConnell said he considers that bill a modest proposal that would simply stop such groups from having to report to both state and federal officials.
Steve Weissman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, said the measure would make it easier to hide the flow of special-interest money in politics.
His group wants the IRS to toughen disclosure rules for 527 groups, including requiring them to report the date each donation was received and what they are spending their money on.
McConnell predicts little if any action on such bills by Congress.
He said "reform industry" groups are making their living off the campaign-finance issue and "never want it to die."
Many lawmakers, on the other hand, have had enough for now, McConnell said, adding that the only good feature of the new law is an increase in the limits on individual and political action committee donations to candidates.
"We've spent a disproportionate amount of time on this already and the one thing everyone has in common is campaign-finance fatigue," he said.
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