How to 'Disappear' a Law

The Senate's campaign-finance reform leaders, John McCain and Russ Feingold, haven't much liked the rules coming out of the Federal Election Commission since they shepherded their bill through Congress.

Who can blame them?

The law was aimed at keeping parties and federal officeholders from raising "soft money" (unregulated cash that flows to political parties from individuals, corporations, and unions). But the six-member FEC, charged with drawing up regulations to implement the law, has created plenty of room for would-be loopholers to slip past the ban, which goes into effect the day after the Nov. 5 elections.

For example, the FEC decided to define narrowly the meaning of the words "to solicit" used in the law. In effect, so long as a federal officeholder doesn't overtly ask for a soft-money contribution, he or she is free to suggest one.

The politically split FEC (three Democrats, three Republicans) also is being creative in diluting the law's controls on "issue ads" produced by advocacy groups. Such political ads are supposed to be about a particular public issue, but often are clever, paper-thin disguises for boosting one candidate or tearing down another.

The FEC has put forward four exemptions to the law's restrictions on issue ads that stand to open the door to further campaign shenanigans.

One egregious exemption holds that as long as an organization puts a phone number or Internet address in what's essentially a campaign ad, voilà!, it qualifies as a genuine issue ad. It can be paid for with unregulated soft money collected by the group sponsoring the message, as long as the ad doesn't ask the viewer to vote for or against a specific candidate.

That and other exemptions stand to violate the spirit of the law, which generally defines issue ads as those that "promote, support, attack, or oppose" federal candidates within 60 days of a general election, or 30 days of a primary regardless of whether they specifically name candidates.

Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog group, says, "What they [the FEC] are doing is giving a road map on how to inoculate these sham issue ads from being considered election communications."

The FEC should not be in the business of creating ways to preserve the present sorry state of campaigns. Its rule-setting and definitions should hew to the law's original intent.

That intent, of course, is to reduce the excessive influence of big-dollar donations in the nation's political processes. The FEC commissioners seem intent on finding new ways to let that influence persist.

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