A federal appeals court Thursday questioned whether the Federal Election Commission (search) is undermining the campaign finance law aimed at cleaning up abuses of money in politics.

Examining the FEC's rules implementing the 2002 reform act, a three-judge panel suggested the agency had defined terms on political fund-raising so narrowly that the statute was easy to circumvent.

Is a candidate's comment to prospective donors about the need for $100,000 donations to a state political party a solicitation? Judge David Tatel asked.

It's a "gray area," FEC lawyer David Kolker said.

"That's not gray," Tatel replied.

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (search) bans corporate, union and unlimited donations to national political parties, a practice that flooded the political system with big special-interest checks.

Kolker said FEC rules as currently written should be tested over time because they might prove to be more stringent than the judges are suggesting.

"You're saying leave it alone; except that's not our job," Judge Harry Edwards said. "I don't think it's a viable argument to say `let's wait.'"

Tatel took issue with Kolker's argument that two members of Congress lacked standing to bring the lawsuit, Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass.

If members of Congress are not entitled to go to court in the case, "who would have standing; the answer is nobody, right?" Tatel said.

Edwards is an appointee of the Carter administration; Tatel is a Clinton appointee; and the third member of the panel, Karen LeCraft Henderson, is an appointee of President Bush's father.