Undone Campaign Finance Reform

The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act was intended to regulate the vast flow of money into political campaigns and provide greater disclosure on how those dollars get spent.

To a large extent, the authors of the law, Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold, can claim some success. The Supreme Court upheld key portions of the law last year, and the tap was effectively turned off on unlimited and unregulated "soft money" from individuals, unions, and corporations flowing to political parties. And both parties are now working hard to raise "hard" (regulated) dollars in small amounts, as the law allows.

Nonetheless, a record amount of money is being spent on this year's presidential campaign. Mr. Bush has raised nearly $200 million; Senator Kerry has raised nearly $90 million so far, a Democratic record.

And now comes a most unfortunate development: The Federal Election Commission last week postponed a decision to restrict so-called "527" special-interest groups from raising money to influence federal elections.

These groups, so named after their tax code designation, supposedly operate separately from political parties or candidates, and thus are immune from campaign-finance rules, either in limits put on their spending or requirements to disclose their contributors. The FEC had a proposal before it to close that loophole. It decided to put off the decision, letting the 527 spending continue.

Until now, these groups have been mainly focused on helping Democrats, and have drawn support from wealthy liberals determined to defeat President Bush - including financier George Soros. He has given $7.5 million to two of the most prominent groups, America Coming Together (ACT) and MoveOn.org. They've already paid for millions of dollars of television ads and get-out-the-vote efforts for John Kerry and other Democratic candidates.

So with the FEC decision, the soft-money race, sadly, is on again.

GOP party leaders now predict the birth of their own crop of Republican 527s, which could outsize the Democratic ones. The decision "sets the stage for a total meltdown of federal campaign-finance regulation in 2004," said President Bush's campaign chair Marc Racicot and Republican Party chief Ed Gillespie in a joint statement.

Indeed, 527s make a mockery of the new campaign-finance law's efforts to rein in the ability of rich people, unions, and corporations to buy undue influence with federal decisionmaking.

Perhaps the effects of huge cash infusions - especially if they're spent mainly on negative TV ads - will produce a presidential campaign so over the top that frustrated voters will demand a different sort of politics.

In failing to close the 527 loophole, the FEC essentially abrogated its responsibility in a presidential election year. It should make sure it fixes the problem with 527s for the next election cycle.

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