- The Washington Times - Friday, June 21, 2002

A political battle has erupted over the Federal Election Commission's ongoing efforts to establish rules for the new federal campaign finance law that will ban large, unrestricted contributions known as soft money and issue-advocacy ads during an election.

In a joint statement from the chief sponsors of the McCain-Feingold bill, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, sharply criticized the FEC's efforts yesterday, charging that the agency "has taken upon itself the task of rewriting" the law.

Mr. McCain said that "many of the [FECs] amendments adopted in the past two days simply ignore the law. They show that a majority of the FEC is willing to flout congressional intent and substitute its own policy preferences.

"The country deserves better, especially from an unelected body."

But campaign finance lawyers said the rules adopted thus far will not undermine or weaken the law's central regulatory provisions.

"The bill's core restrictions are clearly being preserved by the commission's rules. The reformers are in part trying to legislate further restrictions through the rule-making process and they're not getting far with the commission," said Jan Baran, a Republican campaign finance law attorney.

Four months before the McCain-Feingold law is to take effect following the Nov. 5 elections, the FEC is developing 300 pages of minutely detailed rules and definitions to govern what critics say are often vague, undefined and confusing terms in the sweeping statute.

So far, the six-member FEC has voted to permit candidates for state and local offices to use soft money for get-out-the-vote drives. It has voted to exempt state and local party committees from having to report soft money they spend on voter registration and vote identification activities, if they do not promote or mention federal candidates.

The regulatory agency has also exempted voter communications, fund raising and other forms of campaign activities on the Internet from the new regulations, despite the fact that the Internet is playing a growing part in modern-day campaigning.

Campaign reform groups such as Common Cause and Democracy 21, which lobbied hard for the McCain-Feingold bill, complained yesterday that the FEC is opening up "huge loopholes" in the new law's attempts to control soft money and prevent advocacy ads in the final weeks of an election.

"It means, potentially, that a lot of soft money can be run through local party committees that could spend it on federal election activities without having to disclose the source of the money," said Don Simon, vice president for Common Cause.

Reformers were also unhappy with the FEC's decision not to modify or more broadly define the law's provisions governing how state parties can spend money on ads that "promote, support, attack or oppose" federal candidates.

Earlier this week, Common Cause President Scott Harshbarger complained that the FEC's first draft of its regulations "defined the term 'promote, support, attack or oppose' so narrowly that they would keep open the very loophole the law closes."

Fighting over the FEC's actions also has broken out between liberal Democratic reformers and the Democratic National Committee and its chairman, Terry McAuliffe, who has been pushing for some relaxation of the FEC's rules over financing state party building activities.

"The Democratic Party cannot have it both ways. You and other party leaders cannot take public credit for enacting important reforms while sending your lawyers into court and into the FEC to undermine the law," Mr. Harshbarger said on his group's Web site, under the headline, "Whose Side, Terry?"

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, also expressed outrage that the DNC's attorney, Joseph E. Sandler, is lobbying the FEC to adopt regulations that would water down the campaign finance law. Mr. Sandler is also representing the California Democratic Party, which is supporting a lawsuit to declare the law unconstitutional.

Opponents of McCain-Feingold said they were happy that the FEC was attempting to tighten some of the law's worst provisions.

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