FEC Faces Tough Questions on Enforcing Campaign Finance Law

Federal election officials are facing almost as many questions as answers after asking campaign-finance watchdogs, political parties and other political players to weigh in on how they should enforce a far-reaching new campaign finance law.

A big question that emerged Wednesday at the second of two days of Federal Election Commission hearings: How strictly should they enforce the law's ban on the raising of unlimited donations from unions, businesses and others by national political parties and federal politicians for federal campaigns?

Attorneys for several national party committees, including the Democratic National Committee and its Republican counterpart, told the FEC they and federal candidates and officeholders should still be able to raise such "soft money" for several non-campaign purposes.

Those include redistricting costs, legal defense funds, presidential inaugural committees and recount funds like those created by Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore for their Florida presidential recount. Such funds have raised millions, largely through six-figure checks; Bush's recount fund collected $9 million, for example.

"There's nothing in the language of the statute, there's nothing in the legislative history that suggests these long-standing allowances were meant to be repealed," Robert Bauer, an attorney for the Senate and House Democratic fund-raising committees, said in an interview.

The FEC gathered testimony this week on how it should carry out the soft money ban, a cornerstone of the hard-fought legislation signed by President Bush this spring. The law, which faces several court challenges, is set to take effect after the Nov. 5 election.

The commission's proposed soft money rule doesn't spell out whether national parties and politicians may continue raising such funds for redistricting expenses and other non-election spending. Panel members said they will consider whether it should.

Commissioner Scott Thomas told party attorneys that whatever rules the FEC imposes to carry out the law, the national parties will have to change their practices.

"I just hope that everyone will understand this is a new day and Congress has changed the way that money has been raised, and we're all going to have to live with it," said Thomas, a Democrat.

In a statement issued after the hearing, Common Cause and Democracy 21 accused the party committees of trying to open loopholes and undermine the soft money ban.

"The commission should reject this plea and faithfully implement the law Congress passed -- a law intended to close down the corrupt soft money system," the groups wrote.

However the FEC decides on the political parties' arguments, the new law wouldn't entirely remove soft money from politics.

It lets state and local party committees raise limited amounts of soft money -- up to $10,000 per donor -- for nonfederal get-out-the-vote and other party-building activities if state and local regulations allow it.

Michigan Democratic Chairman Mark Brewer asked the FEC to impose as little new regulation on state and local party committees as possible to avoid cumbersome reporting rules that would discourage the committees -- largely run by volunteers -- from raising soft money.

Brewer acknowledged that even with the new limits, Michigan Democrats' party committees can still raise large sums, saying, "I'm proud of it because what we're going to spend that money on is traditional grass-roots activity."

The commission plans to adopt soft money rules by month's end.