Campaign Finance Law Gets New Challenge

As political parties and interest groups sue to overturn a campaign finance law they contend removes too much money from politics, others say it should be struck down because it puts too much in.

Several groups — including the National Voting Rights Institute, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the Fannie Lou Hamer Project — are targeting the law's increase in contribution limits. It doubles the amount of so-called hard money individuals can give a candidate to $2,000 per election, for example.

While others have argued that new political spending restrictions in the law violate free speech, those challenging the higher hard money limits say it impinges on speech rights. It gives wealthy donors too loud a voice in elections and makes it harder for people who can't raise big sums to run for office, attorney John Bonifaz told a federal court Thursday.

The question is "whether elections will be open only to the wealthy and well-connected or whether elections will be open to all,'' Bonifaz told the three-judge panel hearing challenges to the law.

While lawmakers contended the increase was meant to address inflation, Bonifaz said it was instead aimed at preserving the power of those who already have it. Candidates raised record amounts under the old limit, he noted.

Stephen Hershkowitz, an attorney for the Federal Election Commission, told the judges Congress acted within its power in raising the limits.

The law took effect Nov. 6. Its best-known provision bans national parties from raising soft money, the unlimited contributions from corporations, unions and others that parties spent on generic activities such as issue ads and get-out-the-vote drives.

The two major parties reported Thursday that they raised $24 million in soft money in the 19 days before Nov. 6. The Democratic National Committee raised $15.2 million; its Republican counterpart took in $8.8 million.

The law also bars a variety of interest groups from airing ads close to elections that mention federal candidates. Its proponents contend groups have used phony issue ads to evade a ban on the use of union or corporate money to influence federal elections.

The Republican National Committee, California Democratic and Republican parties, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, AFL-CIO and National Rifle Association are among dozens of groups suing to try to overturn the law, arguing it violates a range of constitutional rights.

The court is expected to rule next month, allowing an immediate appeal to the Supreme Court by the losing side.

The conclusion Thursday of the lower court's two-day hearing on the challenges came as the FEC continued laying out how it will enforce the law, including provisions targeted in the lawsuits.

The commission detailed a test to determine when the cost of ads run by political parties or interest groups on a candidate's behalf will be subject to federal contribution limits.

The FEC will examine such ads to see if they have been coordinated with a candidate if they expressly call for a candidate's election or defeat, or if they are run within 120 days of an election, are targeted at voters and refer to a candidate or political party.

If the commission determines such ads have been coordinated, the costs would be subject to contribution limits. Campaign finance watchdogs said the new standard would let outside groups and political parties run attack ads coordinated with candidates for weeks before elections in early-primary states.

Commission Chairman David Mason said the 120-day rule was tougher than the previous standard that triggered FEC examination of ads only when they expressly advocated for or against a candidate.

Lawyers opposing the coordination limits said they will chill political speech.

Jan Baran, an attorney for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others, said the law was so vague it put interest groups, corporations and unions at risk of FEC investigation simply for talking to lawmakers.