WASHINGTON – Online political expression should not be exempt from campaign finance law, the House decided Wednesday as lawmakers warned that the Internet has opened up a new loophole for uncontrolled spending on elections.
The House voted 225-182 for a bill that would have excluded blogs, e-mails and other Internet communications from regulation by the Federal Election Commission (search). That was 47 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed under a procedure that limited debate time and allowed no amendments.
The vote in effect clears the way for the FEC to move ahead with court-mandated rule-making to govern political speech and campaign spending on the Internet.
Opposition was led by Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., who with Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., championed the 2002 campaign finance law that banned unlimited "soft money" contributions that corporations, unions and individuals were making to political parties.
"This is a major unraveling of the law," Meehan said. At a time when Washington is again being tainted by scandal, including the CIA leak case (search), "it opens up new avenues for corruption to enter the political process."
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, said the federal government should encourage, rather than fetter, a phenomenon that was bringing more Americans into the political process.
"The newest battlefield in the fight to protect the First Amendment is the Internet," he said. "The Internet is the new town square, and campaign finance regulations are not appropriate there."
Without his legislation, Hensarling said, "I fear that bloggers one day could be fined for improperly linking to a campaign Web site, or merely forwarding a candidate's press release to an e-mail list."
Bloggers from liberal and conservative perspectives made similar predictions at a hearing on the subject in September. "Rather than deal with the red tape of regulation and the risk of legal problems, they will fall silent on all issues of politics," said Michael J. Krempasky, director of the Web site RedState.org (search).
House Speaker Dennis Hastert (search), R-Ill., writing Wednesday on a blog he recently started, said the bill "is about all the folks out in the blogosphere. It's going to protect what you say. It keeps the hand of the federal government out of Internet speech."
But Meehan said no one wants to regulate bloggers. He said he and Shays have an alternative that would protect the free speech rights of bloggers while closing the cyberspace loophole where a lawmaker could vote for a prescription drug bill and then ask pharmaceutical interests to write six-figure checks for campaign ads for them to run on the Internet.
FEC commissioner Scott E. Thomas said at the September hearing that some $14 million was spent on Internet ads in the 2004 campaign.
A federal court last year, amid the escalation of political activity on the Internet, instructed the FEC to draw up regulations that would extend federal campaign finance and spending limits to the Web.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid (search) of Nevada has introduced a companion bill to the Hensarling measure, but the Senate has yet to take it up.