FEC Considers Coordinated Expenditures

Federal election regulators on Wednesday turned their attention to one of the most complex aspects of their work to implement the nation's new campaign finance law, considering how far interest groups, candidates and political parties can legally go in coordinating election activities.

Many of the key players, including the Democratic and Republican national committees, business lobbies and campaign finance watchdog groups, planned to offer their views Wednesday and Thursday at a Federal Election Commission hearing.

Commissioner Scott Thomas said at the hearing that the commission needs coordination rules designed to give "the little guy'' a chance to make his voice heard "and not be drowned out by those who can put up tons and tons of money to support a candidate.''

Gregory Casey, president of the Business Industry Political Action Committee, told the commission that it must adopt clear and realistic rules that allow businesses to remain active in elections.

"The financial involvement of business both in support of candidates and in support of political messages is an American tradition as important as it is necessary,'' Casey said.

Robert Bauer, an attorney for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and its House counterpart, and Donald McGahn, general counsel for the National Republican Congressional Committee, asked the FEC to delay the development of new rules on party coordination with candidates. Both said their parties were too busy with the upcoming election to devote the attention that the rule making deserves.

The new campaign finance law, scheduled to take effect the day after next month's election, will bar the national party committees from raising unlimited contributions from unions, businesses and others. The parties can currently spend such donations, known as soft money, on general party activities such as get-out-the-vote drives and ads on party issues.

The law also directs the FEC to write new rules on the degree to which outside groups, political parties and candidates can share information and strategize with each other about their election spending without it counting against federal spending limits. Also at issue is the level at which interest groups and parties may spend on behalf of presidential and congressional candidates.

The sponsors of the new law, including Sens John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., say strong coordination rules are crucial to its success. If too high a degree of coordination is allowed, soft money will simply find a new way into federal elections — through outside groups working in tandem with parties and candidates to spend group funds, they say.

Lobby groups including the Republican-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Democratic-leaning AFL-CIO, both conducting get-out-the-vote drives across the nation in this fall's election, told the commission in written comments that its rules must avoid chilling constitutional rights to free speech and free association.

The Supreme Court has not yet considered the coordination issue. However, several lobby groups noted a lower court ruling imposing a narrow standard for illegal coordination. That decision, in a case involving the Christian Coalition, has led the FEC to drop a coordination case involving the Democratic Party and AFL-CIO, and one involving the GOP and a coalition of business groups.