FEC Moves to Regulate Groups Opposing Bush
By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 2004; Page A06
The Federal Election Commission decided yesterday that many of the
political committees raising "soft" money to campaign against President
Bush are subject to regulation, but it postponed deciding how tough the
restrictions should be.
The FEC voted 4 to 2 to warn Americans for a Better Country that
activities that "promote, attack, support or oppose" a federal candidate
must be paid for with hard money, a type of political donation that,
unlike soft money, has tight restrictions on sources and amounts. This
is a broader standard than used in the past. Activities that benefit a
mix of federal, state and local candidates are to be paid for with a mix
of hard and soft money, the commission determined.
Interpretations of yesterday's action varied greatly.
FEC Vice Chairman Ellen L. Weintraub said the decision should not
severely constrain those seeking to raise and spend soft money, which is
not subject to limits and can come from unions and corporations as well
as individuals. "I don't think sophisticated political actors would have
a hard time figuring out how to work within this framework," she said.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, in contrast, said
the ruling will put out of business "groups like America Coming Together
[ACT], the Media Fund, Partnership for America's Families and the
MoveOn.org Voter Fund." All are pro-Democratic groups organized under
Section 527 of the tax code.
These and other 527 committees, as they are known, are aiming to become
a shadow version of the Democratic Party, financing television
commercials and voter mobilization in 15 to 17 battleground states this
fall. They plan to pay for some or all of their activities with large
The McCain-Feingold campaign finance law barred the national parties
from accepting soft money, prompting the creation of many 527
committees. Campaign watchdog groups have challenged the groups'
legality, and yesterday's FEC ruling was among the first to address
Harold Ickes, a former aide to President Bill Clinton and now head of
the Media Fund, accused Gillespie of misconstruing the consequences of
yesterday's FEC decisions to "inhibit our supporters and donors by his
Jim Jordan, spokesman for the Media Fund and ACT, two of the most
ambitious pro-Democratic groups, said: "It's clear that today's action
is limited in its scope. We remain confident that we'll have the room we
need to operate robustly and effectively."
The Media Fund, which plans to run TV ads attacking Bush and supporting
Democrats, and ACT, which plans to conduct voter mobilization in 17
battleground states, have a fundraising goal this year of $95 million
McCain-Feingold's restrictions on soft money have hurt the Democratic
Party, which depended heavily on large contributions from unions and
rich partisans to pay for issue ads and voter mobilization. The GOP has
been far more successful raising still-legal hard money, which can
involve contributions of up to $25,000 to the parties.
Key decisions yet to be made by the FEC include: If organizations such
as ABC or ACT can spend a mix of hard and soft money, what rules will
govern the ratio? And under what circumstance will 527 organizations --
such as the Media Fund, which is currently not registered with the FEC
-- and politically active groups known as 501c4s, fall under FEC
In reports filed with the FEC, ACT has used an allocation formula
allowing it to pay 98 percent of its costs with soft money and 2 percent
with hard money. The FEC yesterday signaled it will reconsider such
allocation formulas in May.
If ACT were required to spend hard and soft money equally, the committee
would have to raise large amounts of difficult-to-come-by hard money, a
costly and time-consuming process.
On philosophical, not partisan, grounds, two of the Republican
commissioners -- Chairman Bradley A. Smith and David M. Mason -- voted
against regulation of the Democratic groups, rejecting pressure from the
RNC. "If Republicans think they can win by silencing their opponents,
they are wrong," said Smith, and "they are going to deserve to lose."