FEC pushes back on unlimited contributions

Lawmaker sought to create super-PAC

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The Federal Election Commission took a rare step toward pushing back against eroding limits on money in politics Wednesday, recommending denial of a lawmaker’s request to set up a fund that could raise unlimited amounts from corporations and unions.

Court rulings in the past two years have allowed groups to accept and spend contributions of any amount, a sharp break from dollar limits in place for candidates, parties and advocacy groups, positing that the potentially corrupting effect of money on politicians was not an issue because to accept unlimited funds, groups must be “independent” from and avoid “coordination” with politicians.

Those definitions have been stretched thin, and Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, had tested the limits by asking whether a political action committee he controls could operate as a super-PAC.

Many lawmakers keep leadership PACs, which are separate from campaign accounts, to raise money to give to colleagues in an attempt to boost their profiles among peers, but they are subject to donation caps.

Wednesday’s draft opinion, which has yet to be approved by the FEC commissioners, will avoid a situation where special interests could write massive checks directly to a fund attached to a member of Congress — with all the attendant gratitude from the lawmaker, who could directly solicit money for the fund.

Other lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, have had top aides cut formal ties to their campaigns to create super-PACs serving much the same purposes as Mr. Lee’s would have.

The draft opinion is a rare example of consensus within the FEC that disallows bold attempts to introduce big money into politics. The FEC, which is composed of three Republican and three Democrat commissioners, has struggled to establish, clarify and enforce campaign finance laws because of political deadlock.

But the opinion, and language in drafts issued Wednesday concerning American Crossroads, a super-PAC tied to Republican operative Karl Rove, indicate that it may be ready to confront liberal and conservative groups’ increasingly lenient interpretations of independence and coordination.

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