- The Washington Times - Friday, July 26, 2002

The chairman of the Federal Election Commission says he believes that campaign contributions are a constitutionally protected form of free speech, even as his agency prepares to defend a new ban on large contributions in the courts.

FEC Chairman David M. Mason says he has no qualms about defending the campaign-finance law, which is being challenged in federal court as an unconstitutional restriction on freedom of speech.

But he said in an interview with The Washington Times this week that he thinks free speech and giving money to political campaigns are inextricably connected.

"I agree with the analysis that the purpose of money is to facilitate speech and debate about politics and therefore it has to be constitutionally protected as a necessary component, if you will, of free speech," Mr. Mason said. "It's not the same thing, but it's inextricably combined."

Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, is leading the legal offensive citing those very arguments in federal court against the law, named for its leading sponsors, Sens. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, and John McCain, Arizona Republican.

Mr. Mason, a former Heritage Foundation senior fellow who fought campaign-finance regulations before President Bush named him FEC chairman, also defended the agency's rule-making to clarify parts of the law, which prohibits large, unregulated contributions to political parties.

Critics of the FEC's rule-making charged last month that the regulatory agency, which oversees and enforces federal election laws, "undermined the McCain-Feingold law by narrowing the scope of the ban on soft money that is at the heart of the reform bill."

In a blistering attack on the commission, Mr. McCain said the agency "has taken upon itself the task of rewriting" the law.

In his first extensive interview since the FEC issued those rules, Mr. Mason rejected that criticism.

"The sponsors of the bill wanted more, but I think we did a good job on the rules. When there are a lot of ambiguities in the legislation, that's the normal process of what the FEC does," he said.

As for the stinging criticism from Mr. McCain and his allies, Mr. Mason said, "I'm a pretty big boy. I can handle that."

Congress has 60 days to reject the FEC's rules, but Mr. Mason said, "I don't expect Congress to do anything to them."

The FEC still has to hand down rules governing the remaining five parts of the law, which will take effect Nov. 6, though Mr. Mason said he expects the commission will not finish its work until the end of the year.

But when asked whether the act of giving money to a political party or candidates is a form of free speech, and thus protected by the Constitution, Mr. Mason appeared to put aside his role as defender of the new law and gave a candid assessment of the ideological issue at the heart of the court dispute.

"In order [for a political party] to communicate, you have to spend money to make your case. So in that case, the money is inextricably tied up in [free] speech, even though it is not the same thing," he said.

"But, yes, limiting the amount of money that you can contribute to political communications, to be spent on political communications is effectively a limit on your political speech," he said.

He pointed out that free speech was the reason the U.S. Supreme Court struck down several post-Watergate campaign spending limits in its 1976 decision Buckley v. Valeo.

However, when asked whether an individual should be able to make a political statement by contributing to the Democratic National Committee, which the new law will prohibit, Mr. Mason thought and then declined to answer.

"I don't really feel a need to answer that question. It's not a question that I'm going to affect right now," he said.

On another issue, Mr. Mason doubted the argument made by supporters of the law that it would reduce the amount of money spent on political campaigns. Money will find other, harder-to-track routes into the political process, he said.

"Generally speaking, the amount of money in politics will grow," he said, "but that is not to say that the campaign finance laws have no effect. They can have some fairly dramatic effects."

While the amount of money flowing into the political parties "could go down" as a result of the ban on soft money, some of that money "will go outside the system," he said.

"Some of it is likely to go to organizations that aren't political parties, aren't political committees and aren't reporting to us, and therefore we won't be able to identify the amounts," he said.

"So, will there be more money in politics five or 10 years from now? The answer is yes, it will keep going up, but it may be harder to measure than it has been in the past because it will be spent by nonregistered organizations," he said.


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