Reformers, FEC Spar Over Campaign Finance

Campaign finance reformers will not sit idly by watching the Federal Elections Commission bastardize their seven years of effort, Sen. John McCain warned Tuesday.

McCain, R-Ariz., and his partners Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Marty Meehan, D-Mass., announced that the House members will be filing a  lawsuit challenging the soft money regulations written by the FEC entrusted with keeping campaigns honest.

"We won’t let four unelected members of the FEC undermine the integrity of our campaign finance laws," McCain said in reference to the four commissioners who voted for the regulations.

"These four members are corrupt," McCain added. "Anyone who knowingly or willingly violates their constitutional responsibilities is corrupt."

Republican Commissioner Bradley Smith shot back.

"I don’t think it does [McCain] any credit to be so extreme in his language," he said.

"When it comes to campaign finance reform, Sen. McCain doesn't understand what the law is, what his own bill does, and doesn't know what he's talking about," Smith added.

The four members of Congress said they are also filing legislation in the House and Senate to overturn the FEC's plan for banning unregulated "soft money" under the campaign finance law passed by Congress and signed into law earlier this year.

All four said the commission has created enormous loopholes that would continue to allow office holders, candidates and political parties to raise and spend soft money by influencing outside organizations and political action committees, speak at fund-raisers on behalf of state and local candidates, and engage in other schemes intended for prohibition under the law.

That law is already being challenged in federal court on the grounds that it violates free speech.

"The loopholes created by the Federal Election Commission operate separately and in combination to resurrect elements of the soft money system that Congress, on behalf of the American people, intended to put to rest," the four congressmen said in a written statement.

The members blamed the one Democratic and three Republican commissioners who approved the disputed language in the soft money regulations this summer. Two other Democratic commissioners opposed the language.

Smith, who is a longtime critic of campaign finance laws and does not agree with the act passed by Congress this year responded that the commission has toiled within the legal framework to interpret it as fairly and specifically as possible.

He said that McCain should not lash out at the commission because it refuses to impose stricter regulations than what Congress was willing to pass this year.

"I feel kind of sorry for McCain," Smith said. "I think he realizes that he wasted his career on an issue that is not going to make a difference, so he is lashing out at the first available target."

Smith said that the law can't possibly yield the sweeping changes McCain and Feingold initially promised because so many deals were cut in order to get it passed that the language is too watered down.

He pointed to demands that the FEC regulate the Internet to protect speech and institute timelines ahead of the statute's effective date of Nov. 6.

"During the debate there was a lot of compromising going on by McCain and the others in order to get it passed," said Jeffrey Mazzella, a spokesman for the Center for Individual Freedom, one of the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit challenging the campaign finance law’s constitutionality.

But Democratic Commissioner Scott E. Thomas called the complaints against the FEC’s regulations "a mixed bag." While he agrees in some cases that the law passed by Congress was less than "crystal clear," he also believes that his colleagues on the other side went too far in some of their interpretations.

"In some cases, the regulations that were adopted, at least in my humble view, did cross the line set up in the statute and the intent of Congress," said Thomas.

Karl J. Sandstrom, vice chairman of the commission and the lone Democrat voting with the GOP membership on the soft money regulations in dispute, said the members were willing to stand behind their hard work on the FEC. His term is expired, and he is expected to be replaced by another Democrat in the next Congress.

"I think all of our decisions were proper interpretations of the statute," he said. "Certainly if they introduce this bill, we will welcome the opportunity to testify before the appropriate committees."

Feingold insisted their forces "will prevail," although they do not expect either the House or Senate measures to see any action until Congress reconvenes next year.

McCain added the corrupt commissioners and "absolute inefficiency of the commission" is a compelling argument for its dissolution, which he may seek in the future.