'Soft money' ban hinges on obscure agency

Partisan fighting aside, FEC vote today is likely to keep campaign-finance reform intact.

One is a former Defense undersecretary who is a proponent of home schooling. Another is a former healthcare consultant who served as US vice consul in Ecuador. A third was a lawyer for President Bush's 2000 campaign and Bob Dole's 1996 run.

The six members of the Federal Election Commission typically are among the most anonymous people in US politics. But lately, they've been the focus of an unusual amount of attention, as they prepare to vote on a critical set of rules governing the most sweeping campaign-finance law in a generation.

The law, which bans unregulated "soft money" donations to political parties, passed Congress this spring, supported by a fragile coalition mostly of Democrats and a handful of Republicans. Yet the final outcome has hinged for weeks on these six commissioners, who have the task of interpreting how the statute will work in practice and agreeing on a set of regulations to enforce it. Much of their work involves seemingly small details, such as the definition of terms like "agent." But analysts say the group's decisions are critical in the ultimate strength of the law. So, the battle over FEC rules has been nearly as ferocious as that over the bill itself – with heavy lobbying from both sides, strong partisan clashes, and even accusations of treachery.

"[The commissioners] have a great deal of influence on how the law actually plays out in practice," says Paul Sanford, director of FEC Watch at the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group in Washington. "The agency has a lot of leeway to implement whatever definitions they see fit."

The FEC was founded in 1975 to enforce the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act, which put in place strict disclosure requirements for candidates and parties. Commissioners, appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, serve six years, with two members' terms expiring every two years.

By law, the group must be evenly split between Democrats and Republicans - which means that in order for the commission to avoid a stalemate on key decisions, at least one member of one party must agree to vote with the other side. In past years, "there was a Republican commissioner who was generally willing to vote with the Democrats on a number of key enforcement cases," says Mr. Sanford. But lately, he says, that equation has been reversed, with a Democrat, Commissioner Karl Sandstrom, often voting with the Republicans.

Historically, he adds, the FEC has often sided with the party committees. Many analysts expected that that would be the outcome of this week's vote on the campaign-finance regulations, because lawyers for both party committees – including Democrats, who'd previously supported the bill – were arguing in favor of a narrower interpretation of the law. A draft of proposed rules released by the commission last month took a number of stands that, reformers charged, would have weakened the law, essentially allowing party officials to continue to raise soft money by diverting it through state parties. Sponsors of the original bill were so upset by the proposed regulations that they threatened to sue the FEC.

But in a revised draft released this week, the commission appeared to take a far stricter stand. The new rules, which are expected to be approved in tomorrow's vote, would widely restrict the parties' abilities to both raise and spend soft money.

The new regulations will not take effect until after this fall's elections, however, leaving both parties scrambling to raise as much soft money as possible in the meantime.

Analysts note that among regulatory bodies, the FEC has a unique mission: Rather than overseeing actions of average citizens, it is responsible for regulating the behavior of members of Congress themselves. Because its actions directly affect those members' reelection efforts, some say it's not surprising that the commission often comes under attack.

"They've had equally loud criticism from the reformers as well as those who feel like they're being overregulated," says Kenneth Gross, a former head of enforcement for the FEC. "In some respects, they're in a no-win situation."

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