WASHINGTON – Sponsors of a new campaign finance law meant to take big money out of national politics say election officials who will enforce the new rules are instead creating significant loopholes.
They say the law Congress passed this year, scheduled to take effect after the fall election, clearly bars national party committees and federal candidates and officeholders from raising "soft money," unlimited contributions from corporations, unions and others that opponents say has a corrupting influence on politics.
National parties -- often helped by party leaders, such as members of Congress or the president -- currently can raise soft money for party-building activities, such as get-out-the-vote drives not directed at specific candidates. Lawmakers often collect such contributions for political action committees they create to support other candidates.
The Federal Election Commission, now writing rules to spell out how it will enforce the law, is narrowing the soft money ban, Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass., and Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said Thursday.
Several FEC decisions this week will potentially allow federal candidates and party leaders "to continue to raise soft money for the state parties using careful language or a `wink and a nod,"' they said in a joint statement.
Among decisions they are criticizing is a 4-2 vote late Wednesday in which the commission, made up of three Democrats and three Republicans, said the only way a federal candidate or officeholder could violate the ban on raising soft money would be to explicitly ask for such contributions.
Democratic Commissioner Karl Sandstrom said he proposed the narrow test to avoid violating free-speech rights and forcing the FEC to police millions of private conversations. The three GOP commissioners supported his proposal.
The narrow definitions "threaten to undermine a central goal of our bill -- to get federal officials out of the business of raising unlimited soft money from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals," the law's sponsors said.
On Thursday, the commission said federal candidates and officeholders -- though unable to raise unlimited money for themselves -- can ask donors at state and local party fund-raisers to contribute soft money to the parties.
The new law allows federal politicians to headline state and local political party fund-raisers where soft money is raised.
Republican Commissioner Michael Toner proposed making it clear in FEC rules that members of Congress can say whatever they wish at state and local party fund-raisers. The commission voted 5-1 for his proposal, with three Republicans and two Democrats backing it and one Democrat opposing it.
Republican Commissioner Bradley Smith, who has said he thinks major parts of the new law are unconstitutional, said the FEC is following the law nonetheless.
"Life will change for everybody and there will be a lot less money flowing through political parties, in particular through the national parties," he said.
The FEC, facing a Tuesday deadline set by Congress, planned to resume work on its soft money rule Saturday.