- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 26, 2004

President Bush’s attempt yesterday to stifle so-called 527 groups with a lawsuit has those who opposed the campaign finance bill that popularized such political spending saying they told him so.

Mr. Bush signed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation in 2002 despite opposition from prominent Republicans such as Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. But distaste for the law stretched across the political spectrum.

Now the 527 groups — named for the section of the federal tax code that exempts them from limits on political spending — are exploiting the new regulations with what is expected to be more than $100 million each in ads against Mr. Bush and against Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry.

Longtime opponents of McCain-Feingold are not surprised.

“Criticism of politicians and their policies is as American as apple pies and hot dogs,” said Marvin Johnson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “The point of McCain-Feingold is that criticizing politicians is somehow bad.

“It’s ironic that you now have both sides trying to squelch the other side of the 527 ads because they are hearing something they don’t want to hear,” Mr. Johnson said. “Political speech is the pillar of our democracy, and if you destroy that pillar, it’s going to come crashing down around our ears.”

Even as he signed it into law, Mr. Bush acknowledged that McCain-Feingold “does have flaws,” the biggest one being that “individual freedom to participate in elections should be expanded, not diminished.”

The lawsuit to force the Federal Election Commission to rein in the 527s, however, would outlaw individual participation in politics, said Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth.

“Our attitude was that it was unconstitutional in the first place,” said Mr. Moore, whose organization was one of the few conservative groups to start 527 spending early. “The attempt by McCain-Feingold to take big money out of the political process was a failure.”

The president hasn’t always expressed distaste for 527 groups. On March 3, 2000, during the Republican primary, Mr. Bush said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that such ads were “part of the American process” and he supported them.

“People have the right to run ads,” he said at the time. “They have the right to do what they want to do under the First Amendment in America.”

Bush-Cheney campaign Chairman Mark Racicot said the legal attempt to rein in 527 groups does not mean “the president is saying people don’t have the right to speak.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that McCain-Feingold’s restrictions on political speech did not violate the First Amendment, Mr. Racicot said.

Election lawyer Jan Baran said he doesn’t expect the president’s lawsuit to succeed, at least not in time to affect a campaign that ends in two months.

“Are they going to include the New York Times and The Washington Post as well? I know a lot of people who’d like to file suit against them,” Mr. Baran said, adding that “new laws only seem to lead to new innovations in the political process.”

A former lobbyist who worked to stop McCain-Feingold said the bill passed with the 527 loophole because it was “considered the minimum as a compromise.”

“McConnell thought of that,” said the lobbyist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “He didn’t vote for it, but he also warned that money would find its way to outside groups.

“Everyone recognized that there would be some problem, and McConnell and the Republicans were worried that this would get real big, that the parties would get replaced by the 527s,” the source said. “That view appears to be vindicated.”

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