Bush's chance to curb money politics

The agency set up to enforce US laws intended to reduce the corrupting influence of big campaign donations seems more interested in poking loopholes in those laws. In fact, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has been dubbed both a "rogue agency" and "a wholly owned subsidiary of Congress," protecting incumbents from ballot challengers. It's now time to fix that.

Four of the commission's six positions - which by law must be balanced between three GOP and three Democratic appointees - are currently open. Last month, in a bid to improve the FEC's work, the four horsemen of campaign finance reform - Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, Rep. Martin Meehan (D) of Massachusetts, and Rep. Chris Shays (R) of Connecticut - wrote a letter to President Bush urging him to appoint FEC commissioners "who will uphold the letter and spirit" of the campaign-finance laws. Those four are the original sponsors of the most recent reforms, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002.

Alas, the names of potential FEC appointees being pushed by Senate majority whip Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky and minority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada would continue the agency's tradition of lax enforcement and rulemaking.

The FEC's weak knees became very evident in a federal court decision, upheld last month on appeal, that requires the agency to rewrite and toughen the regulations it drew up to enforce the BCRA. Judge David Tatel noted in the decision that "savvy campaign operators" would exploit the lax FEC regulations and reopen "the very soft money floodgates BCRA aimed to close."

With the commission rebuked and asked to enforce the laws, it becomes crucial that new appointees act in that spirit and create an atmosphere of aggressive oversight. The FEC can be transformed into a vigorous watchdog without infringing First Amendment free-speech rights.

President Bush himself was a victim of weak enforcement of campaign-finance laws. During his 2004 campaign, the FEC failed to act on his campaign's petition to regulate so-called 527 groups, such as Moveon.org. These tax-exempt organizations spent huge amounts of unregulated "soft money" on attack ads, supposedly independent of the political parties. Democratic candidate John Kerry made similar complaints about other 527s, such as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

In his decision, Judge Tatel wrote, "Whereas BCRA aims to shut down the soft-money system, the commission's rules allow parties and politicians to perpetuate it, provided they avoid the most explicit forms of solicitation and direction."

Mr. Bush has resisted making unilateral FEC appointments during the August congressional recess. Many incumbents in both parties may not want to be subjected to scrutiny by a more vigilant FEC. But perhaps the president, with his own campaign days behind him, will cast an eye toward his legacy in office and see fit to appoint FEC members who will promote fair electoral competition and shape up a wayward agency.

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