Chairmen Debate Campaign Money Rules

The House and Senate appear headed in different directions on dealing with the influence of soft-money groups like the Republican-leaning Swift Boat Veterans (search) and Democrat-aligned (search) that emerged in last year's presidential election.

A House committee chairman on Wednesday voiced support for a bill that would restore to the political parties some of the financial muscle lawmakers took away in the 2002 campaign finance law. His Senate counterpart would rather restrict what the outside groups can do.

The divergent strategies add up to general dissatisfaction with the way the 2002 campaign finance law has worked — or hasn't. All agree that the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (search) elevated the election-cycle influence of organizations that operate under Section 527 of (search) the tax code — nonparty political groups — by leaving their activities less regulated than those of political parties.

Rep. Bob Ney, the Ohio Republican who chairs the House Administration Committee, said the 2002 law led to "an increase in negative, scorched-earth politics" by empowering groups that attack candidates while muzzling political parties that try to respond.

At a hearing Tuesday, Ney made clear he was leaning toward supporting a bill sponsored by Reps. Mike Pence, R-Ind., and Al Wynn, D-Md., that would "level the playing field" by loosening spending and contribution restrictions on political parties.

Pence and Wynn would remove aggregate limits on how much money individuals can give to influence federal elections, removing the choice between contributing to parties, candidates and other groups. According to the Federal Election Commission (search), the 2002 bill limited an individual's overall contributions to $95,000 every two years. Of that total, only $37,500 may be given to candidates and no more than $37,500 to committees that are not national parties.

The Pence-Wynn bill also would give state and local party organizations free rein to spend whatever they can raise on voter registration drives and sample ballots.

To some, the Pence-Wynn bill wouldn't "level the playing field," but tilt it in favor of incumbents and political parties. Democracy 21 (search) President Fred Wertheimer says it would let federal office holders raise more than $1 million per contributor for political party committees in a two-year election cycle.

"This is exactly the kind of huge, corrupting sum that was outlawed by the (2002) McCain-Feingold law," Wertheimer said.

The option his group backs, sponsored in the House by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Marty Meehan, D-Mass., has more support among some Senate Republican leaders, including Rules Committee Chairman Trent Lott of Mississippi. Rather than expand political parties' money-raising ability and reverse the restrictions enacted in the 2002 bill, it would force some 527s to operate under federal campaign finance limits.

Groups like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which in 2004 attacked Democrat John Kerry, and, which attacked President Bush, would no longer be able to use unlimited amounts of money often donated by millionaires to buy advertising that mentions federal candidates.

In addition to Lott, the Senate measure is sponsored by the original patrons of the 2002 campaign finance law, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. Lott announced Wednesday that his committee will consider the legislation on April 27.

Its proponents in the House said the Senate measure goes after major contributors to 527s — like billionaire George Soros (search), a big patron of — while not gutting the 2002 law. Not everyone sees the need to do that.

"These 527s ensured that we heard from these folks that have been left out of the political process for decades," said California Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, the senior Democrat on Ney's committee.