- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2004

Sen. John McCain threatened yesterday to sue the Federal Election Commission if it fails to enforce federal election laws against groups that use “soft money” to influence presidential and congressional races.

“Senator [Russell D.] Feingold is right, use of soft money contributions by ‘527 groups’ whose major purpose is to affect federal elections is not legal,” the Arizona Republican said in a Senate Rules and Administration Committee hearing yesterday.

“If the FEC decides not to enforce the laws or fails to act I will go to the courts,” he said, giving the FEC an April deadline.

A “527 group,” named for the section of the IRS code under which it files taxes, is a private nonprofit political organization with the primary goal of influencing elections at the state and local level.

A large number of 527 groups, most with ties to the Democratic Party, have been created recently. On Tuesday, President Bush’s re-election campaign asked the FEC to investigate whether a $5 million, 17-state TV ad campaign by a 527 group, the Media Fund, is illegal. The ad names Mr. Bush and says “it’s time to take our country back.”

The Media Fund, along with groups such as MoveOn.org, has been financed with huge amounts of “soft money,” unregulated contributions from corporations, unions and businesses.

If the Media Fund or MoveOn.org were found to have as a primary goal affecting the election of House, Senate or presidential candidates, limits would kick in on how much any one individual, union or corporation could give to the group. It also would have to submit to a variety of federal regulations on registrations and quarterly reports on contributions and expenditures.

The Media Fund has been generously subsidized by liberal billionaire George Soros, who has said he wants to defeat Mr. Bush in November and has compared the president to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.

According to Mr. McCain and Mr. Feingold, some “527 groups” are being dishonest in denying that their goal is to influence federal elections.

“They should be forced to register with the FEC and comply with federal contribution limits and source prohibitions for ads,” Mr. McCain said yesterday. Similar words came from Mr. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat.

But Mr. McCain and Mr. Feingold have been hit by Republican opponents for causing the “527 mess.”

“This was my problem with [McCain-Feingold] from the beginning. I always was worried that this [soft] money would ooze out somewhere else. Here it is,” said Senate Rules and Administration Committee Chairman Trent Lott of Mississippi.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, took the matter to the Supreme Court, a case that Mr. McCain referred to several times at the hearing.

Mr. McCain said the mess over how what campaign-finance laws apply to which groups lies squarely on the shoulders of an FEC that he says has been unwilling to implement campaign-finance limits as written and enforce them vigorously.

“The Supreme Court stated that in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission that the FEC had ‘subverted’ the law, issued regulations that permitted more than Congress had ever intended and … invited widespread circumvention of the Federal Election Campaign Act’s limits on contributions,” Mr. McCain said.

For his part, Mr. Feingold says he has given up on the FEC and wants it overhauled, saying at yesterday’s hearing that effective campaign-finance reform will require another bill from himself and Mr. McCain to restructure the FEC.

“To be successful, campaign-finance reform must be implemented and enforced by an agency that is dedicated to carrying out the will of Congress, not frustrating it,” Mr. Feingold said.

The FEC has argued in recent years that “527 groups” are not regulated under the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act and later refinements, because they are private and nonpartisan and because their primary mission is not to influence federal elections.

In a ruling last month, the FEC did vote to restrict nonpartisan “527 groups” from using “soft money” to influence elections, while delaying a ruling on whether the McCain-Feingold restrictions prohibit money from big businesses and unions from going to tax-exempt groups connected to political parties.

Mr. McCain said FEC inaction has opened the door to soft money being let back into federal campaigns in this election cycle and chastised FEC Vice Chairman Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, as engaged in foot-dragging on the issue.

Last month, Mrs. Weintraub said with the election cycle already under way she did not want to be rushed into making hasty rulings “with far-reaching implications, at the behest of those who see in our hurried action their short-term political gain.”

“What in the world is she talking about?” Mr. McCain asked in yesterday’s hearing. “What role does Mrs. Weintraub have to discuss in any way political matters?”

House Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney, Ohio Republican, held a similar hearing in January which devolved into a raucous shouting match between Republicans and Democrats over how to proceed.

The “527 groups” asked to attend did not show and virtually nothing came of the hearing, to the irritation of Mr. Ney. The circumstances were the same yesterday, with “527 groups” members refusing to appear before the senators.

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