- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 2, 2005

The House last night defeated a bill that would have exempted the Internet from campaign finance regulations, which means the Federal Election Commission will probably have to write rules to govern what bloggers and others do on their Web sites.

Under the House rules for debate yesterday the bill needed to achieve a two-thirds vote. It received 225 votes in favor, and 182 votes opposed. Voting “yes” were 46 Democrats and 179 Republicans, while 143 Democrats, 38 Republicans and 1 independent opposed the bill.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican, said the vote shows there’s majority support, and said he will try again soon.

“Most members of Congress support protecting free speech on the Internet. Without this legislation, I fear that the cold, callous, and clumsy hand of federal regulation may stifle political speech online,” he said.

Bloggers said without the bill, linking to a campaign’s Web site or even forwarding a candidate’s press release could be punishable by fines.

But the bill’s opponents — mostly lawmakers who supported the 2002 McCain-Feingold law that rewrote campaign finance laws — said yesterday’s bill carved out too big a loophole, leaving the door open for corporations and unions to put large amounts of money into politics through the Internet.

“The issue here is not individual speech. The issue is corrupting soft money,” said Rep. Martin T. Meehan, Massachusetts Democrat, who was one of the sponsors of the 2002 law that tried to end the use of “soft money,” the uncapped donations that used to flood to political parties and interest groups in the days before an election.

“This is no minor affair, this is a major unraveling of the law,” Mr. Meehan said.

The Federal Election Commission in 2002 voted 4-2 to exempt the Internet from the McCain-Feingold rules, but the bill’s sponsors went to court to overturn the exemption and federal courts sided with them. The FEC now must write rules governing the Internet, probably in time for the 2006 election.

Those rules will have to tackle questions about whether bloggers should have the same exemptions that are carved out for traditional press outlets like newspapers, television, magazines and radio; whether to cover online only publications; and what value to put on a link to a campaign Web site, for purposes of calculating how that counts as a political contribution.

Michael E. Toner, an FEC commissioner who supports the Internet exemption, had hoped the House would approve the bill.

“This is a real opportunity for Congress to make clear not every aspect of politics needs to be or should be regulated by the FEC,” Mr. Toner said.

And bloggers from both sides of the political spectrum support the bill.

Those from the liberal side noted the oddity of taking a stand opposed to the lawmakers who, according to prominent blog Daily Kos, “would ordinarily be our allies in the battle to keep corruption out of the political process.”

In his own new blog, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, said yesterday the bill “keeps the hand of the federal government out of Internet speech.”

“There’s no reason to let the FEC load down political online messages with a bunch of bureaucracy and rules. I say, let the people debate online if they want to,” he wrote.

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