A federal judge in Washington sent a strong signal to the Federal Election Commission Saturday in a ruling that said the FEC created "an immense loophole" and the potential for "gross abuse" of the 2002 campaign finance law.
It might just as well have said, "Do your job."
Responding to a lawsuit brought by campaign-finance reformers Reps. Chris Shays (R) of Connecticut and Marty Meehan (D) of Massachusetts, US District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly struck down 15 of 19 FEC rules challenged by them, though her decisions likely won't have an effect on this year's presidential race. The FEC already has signaled it will appeal, and it has hardly enough time to rewrite the rules before the Nov. 2 election.
Still, Judge Kollar-Kotelly's decision helps protect the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law's central point: no more soft money (the unlimited corporate, union, or individual contributions to political parties) in federal election campaigns.
The FEC was supposed to come up with rules for enforcing that law. Clearly, the rules it issued are problematic. Now it must go back and rethink its poor decisions on how third-party groups like Moveon.org and America Coming Together coordinate with federal candidates, for example. (The FEC allowed such groups to coordinate ads and messages with campaigns, as long it was 120 days before an election.)
Or what it means for members of Congress to solicit donations. For instance, the FEC defined the word "solicit" as "to ask directly." That left the door wide open for candidates to "suggest" contributions and even the ways for donors to give.
The judge's ruling demonstrates the FEC's weakness as a regulatory body - composed of an even number of Democrats and Republicans, it's hardly a neutral entity. She did exactly what the FEC should have done all along.