Court may let parties spend more on politics

It took the excesses of the Nixon administration to spark passage of comprehensive campaign-finance reform.

But in the years since, those reforms have been chipped away one by one.

The erosion has come in large part at the hands of US Supreme Court justices, who are struggling to reconcile competing concerns about the corrupt influence of money in American politics versus the free-speech right of Americans to spend money to effectively participate in the democratic process.

Tomorrow, one more provision of the Watergate-era reform structure comes under close scrutiny at the nation's highest court.

At issue in the case - Federal Election Commission (FEC) vs. Colorado Federal Campaign Committee - is whether political parties may be restricted in the amount of money they spend in coordination with their candidates during federal election campaigns.

How a majority of justices come down on that question will help shape the future course of campaign-finance reform in the US.

"At its heart, this case is about the role of political parties in our country and our political system," says Lawrence Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, the campaign-finance watchdog group.

"This case goes to the issue of what influence political parties have on the process and what rights they have," says Mr. Noble, a former general counsel for the FEC.

The case arises at a critical time, with the US Senate preparing for a March debate over campaign-finance reform proposals.

In addition, recent events in Washington and New York are bringing the issue of money and politics into sharp focus, with an ongoing investigation into the possibility of a quid-pro-quo between contributions made to the Clinton Presidential Library and the Democratic Party, and pardons granted by former President Bill Clinton in the waning hours of his administration.

The case before the high court is a 15-year-old dispute between the Colorado Republican Party and the Federal Election Commission over a series of radio ads the Republicans ran early in 1986 attacking the voting record of a Democratic candidate for the US Senate.

The Democrats complain that the $15,000 the Republicans spent for the ads wasn't properly recorded in party filings with the FEC, and that the Republicans were trying to evade campaign funding limits.

The Republicans counter that the money was spent well before the Democratic and Republican primaries, and the ads did not advocate the election of any single candidate. They say they have a First Amendment right to run such ads without interference from the government.

The case focuses on a provision of US election law which seeks to limit the amount of money that political parties may spend during US House and Senate election campaigns in coordination with their candidates.

The provision is an attempt to limit the amount of money candidates receive from wealthy donors seeking influence. Congress was worried that monied special interests might try to bypass individual and other contribution limits by funneling large donations to the candidate's party, with the tacit understanding that the funds would be earmarked to help elect their candidate rather than general party expenses.

To prevent parties from becoming mere money-laundering mechanisms, the law limits the amount they can spend in coordination with their candidates to $20,000 or 2 cents multiplied by the voting-age population of the state, whichever is greater.

In legal briefs, lawyers for the FEC argue that similar funding limitations have been upheld as reasonable and necessary to prevent the appearance of political corruption when the contributions are coming from donors other than a political party. "The question in this case is whether a party committee is entitled by the First Amendment to a complete exemption from coordinated spending limits that are valid as applied to other persons," writes Solicitor General Seth Waxman in a brief filed for the FEC.

Lawyers for the Colorado Republicans disagree. They say what the party is seeking to do in its coordinated spending with candidates is communicate with voters, an activity protected by the First Amendment.

"This court repeatedly has held that limits on money that may be spent on speech are limits on speech itself," writes Jan Baran in his brief for the Republicans.

In an earlier ruling in the same case, the US Supreme Court said that political parties are free to spend as much money as they wish in a campaign, provided the expenditures are made independently of specific candidates.

The high court will decide whether its earlier ruling should be expanded to lift spending limits applied to political parties acting in coordination with their own candidates.

Several friend-of-the-court briefs submitted in support of lifting the limits argue there is no evidence that coordinated party spending has been used for corrupt purposes. "In our democratic system, there is nothing corrupting about party expenditures designed to help a candidate spread the party's message as its standard bearer," writes Mark Lopez in a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation. "What the government views as corruption is nothing more than party politics."

Many members of Congress, who themselves must run for reelection, see the issue differently. "The dominance of money in politics seriously threatens the public's faith in the legitimacy of government," says a friend-of-the court brief filed on behalf of 22 members of Congress who support campaign-finance reform. Among them are Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold. "[This] case provides an appropriate opportunity for the court to make clear that the First Amendment does not hamstring legislators' attempts to protect the viability of our very structure of government."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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