Groups ranging from the AFL-CIO to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are asking the Federal Election Commission to write new regulations that would let them lobby federal officeholders through TV ads in the days before a primary or general election.
If the FEC does, it would be the first time the agency set standards for how groups can lobby without running afoul of the 2002 campaign-finance changes in the McCain-Feingold Act, named after Senate sponsors John McCain and Russell D. Feingold.
In January, the Supreme Court ruled in Wisconsin Right to Life v. FEC that grass-roots groups have ways to lobby and mention the name of a federal candidate without being seen as actively campaigning.
In their petition to the FEC, submitted last week, five groups said the court’s ruling lets the FEC write regulations in time to govern the 2006 election. The groups involved, in addition to the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce, are the National Education Association, OMB Watch and the Alliance for Justice.
Jan Baran, a lawyer representing the Chamber of Commerce in the petition, said his client is trying to make sure its First Amendment right to lobby lawmakers isn’t lost amid the other restrictions.
“If somebody wants to vote on a tax increase just before the election, the Chamber of Commerce, and I assume the AFL-CIO and others, would like to notify the public in the states of the congressmen to vote against the tax increase,” he said.
FEC Chairman Michael E. Toner said the commission should take up the challenge.
“I strongly believe the FEC should consider this matter on an expedited basis so that grass-roots organizations across the political spectrum will have a better sense of what they can and cannot do consistent with the McCain-Feingold law,” he said.
McCain-Feingold prohibited national political parties from taking “soft money,” the uncapped contributions that became popular in the 1990s. It also prohibited groups that take corporate or union contributions from running advocacy ads that mentioned a federal candidate 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election.
Wisconsin Right to Life challenged the 30- and 60-day bans by running ads in 2004 urging Sen. Herb Kohl and Mr. Feingold, both Wisconsin Democrats, to oppose filibusters of judicial nominations. Mr. Feingold was running for re-election at the time.
At issue is what it means to engage in lobbying, but not in campaigning.
Under pre-2002 law, groups could run ads paid for by soft money as long as they didn’t urge the election or defeat of a candidate — a narrow definition that allowed interest group attack ads to flood the airwaves in the days before an election. Under McCain-Feingold, the standard is whether it promotes, attacks, supports or opposes a federal officeholder.
Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, and other lawmakers and groups who pushed for the 2002 law either said they hadn’t had time to review the petition or could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Baran said what the groups are asking for is fairly limited.
“What it doesn’t get into is commentary about past records or legislative or government actions. It doesn’t get into commentary about a politician’s character, and it doesn’t get into commentary about a politician’s campaign,” he said.