- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 26, 2001

Coordinated spending by political parties for federal candidates actually are contributions and therefore may constitutionally be restricted, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The long-awaited decision was 5-4. Swing voter Justice Sandra Day O'Connor surprised some analysts by siding with the wing of the court that does not equate political money with free speech and believes restrictions will head off potential corruption linked with money in politics.
"A party's coordinated expenditures, unlike expenditures truly independent, may be restricted to minimize circumvention of contribution limits," said the opinion for the court, written by Justice David H. Souter and joined by Justices O'Connor, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
"This provision sweeps too broadly, interferes with the party-candidate relationship, and has not been proved necessary to combat corruption," said the dissent, authored by Justice Clarence Thomas and joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist with Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy.
At the same time, the court reaffirmed its 1996 decision that Congress may not limit a party's truly independent spending. The decision totally avoided the term "soft money," which applies to largely unregulated traffic in contributions to party committees but not to candidates.
The case has been in the courts for 15 years and stems from a $15,000 radio ad the GOP aired questioning the credibility on defense spending issues by Rep. Tim Wirth, Colorado Democrat, who successfully sought a Senate seat.
Democrats and the Federal Election Commission claimed the ad exceeded the limit on what the party could spend on a candidate.
The limits on political party spending in question were passed in 1974 as amendments to broad campaign money laws.
Party spending limits on Senate and House candidates are subject to a formula that currently allows a party to spend from $67,560 to $1,636,438 in coordination with a Senate candidate, depending on the state's voting population, and $33,780 to $67,560 in a House race. Republicans spent $427 million under those rules in the 2000 elections, while Democrats spent $265 million.
Jan W. Baran, the political finance specialist who represented the Colorado Republican Party in its narrow loss, ridiculed the decision by contrasting it with yesterday's separate 6-3 ruling that said mushroom growers' First Amendment rights protect them from being forced to pool funds to pay for industrywide advertising.
"I don't know what to say about a Supreme Court that protects the right of mushroom growers more than political parties," said Mr. Baran, who was visibly crestfallen when Justice Souter read the opinion in the courtroom. "It wasn't a good day for the First Amendment."
Common Cause President Scott Harshbarger disputed that, calling the decision good news for "the future of campaign finance reform efforts," an obvious reference to the pending McCain-Feingold bill largely aimed at governing soft money. The bill passed the Senate 59-41, and House debate is due to start in July.
"The gets it. The court's majority understands that large donors are trying to buy, in the court's words, obligated officeholders," said Mr. Harshbarger, whose organization argued in a brief that political parties would become conduits for contributions meant to obligate candidates.
But Craig Engle, a veteran of the FEC and former general counsel for the Republican Senatorial Committee, said the decision is not necessarily "good news" for campaign finance legislation.
"McCain-Feingold is premised on two things: that some First Amendment considerations are not applicable to campaign finance regulation, and that party committees can be treated differently. This opinion makes it clear that the First Amendment is front and center when regulating campaign finance and, second, that party committees cannot be singled out for special treatment, either favorable or unfavorable," Mr. Engle said.
Lawrence Noble, executive director and general counsel for the Center for Responsive Politics, an organization that keeps watch on campaign spending, was uncertain how the opinion would affect the proposed legislation.
"The rationale in this decision will apply to all the issues in McCain-Feingold, but we have to wait to see how it will apply to the specifics," Mr. Noble said. "For instance, this doesn't decide if a ban on soft money is constitutional."
A federal court in Alaska ruled this month that the First Amendment protects soft money from regulation.
Mr. Baran said yesterday's decision results from the court's practice of deciding whether money in politics is a contribution or an expenditure, then limiting contributions.
"I think any impact on the McCain-Feingold bill will only apply to political parties' use of hard money," he said, citing a provision that would disallow independent spending for those that choose coordinated spending.
Current law permits a person to contribute $2,000 to a federal candidate in an election cycle and $20,000 to a political party backing that candidate.
Chief Justice Rehnquist announced the court will recess Thursday, at which time the remaining four decisions are expected to be delivered, including cases relating to a state's power to restrict development of land without payment and Massachusetts' controls on retail cigarette advertising.

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