- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

The Federal Elections Commission yesterday decided to postpone reining in 527 nonprofit political organizations, freeing them to play a major role in this year’s elections.

The 527 groups, named for the code under which they fall at the Internal Revenue Service, are not permitted under federal laws to consult with any campaign or a party’s national committee on the content or timing of campaign ads.

Democratic groups have raised and spent millions of dollars in unlimited contributions on federal election ads, but Republicans said after yesterday’s ruling that they had been reluctant to do the same.

By a 4-2 vote, the commission rejected a proposal by Commissioners Michael E. Toner, a Republican, and Scott C. Thomas, a Democrat, to regulate contributions to the groups.

Mr. Toner and Mr. Thomas proposed subjecting half of a group’s overall contributions to a federally regulated limit of $5,000 annually from an individual if more than 50 percent of the group’s activities are designed to influence federal elections.

“The evidence seems to indicate that the most egregious of these groups seems to be focusing on the presidential election this term; it seems to me that a 50-50 ratio is more than reasonable,” Mr. Thomas said.

Mr. Toner said the 50 percent minimum was debatable and that the proposal was not a panacea, but that inaction was intolerable.

Republicans have been preparing to enlist the help of their own versions of rich soft-money donors such as Democrats George Soros and Jane Fonda to compete with the Democrats on the independent-expenditure, soft-money front.

Bush-Cheney campaign Chairman Marc Racicot and Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie called the FEC’s decision irresponsible and said it destroys the campaign-finance regulations passed in 2002.

Campaign strategists have long feared the regulations because they lose some control over the message — something Republicans have feared more than have Democrats.

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, said Republicans need to realize the 527 rules won’t be clarified anytime soon.

“We need to figure out how we can move forward and see that all the tools being used under the laws allowed, are by both sides,” Mr. Blunt said.

Republican activists said that party 527s are about to arise.

“The Republicans, or some of them, will undoubtedly go out and form 527 organizations so they can compete with the Democrats,” said American Conservative Union Chairman David A. Keene. “But it’s difficult because Republican donors are not as motivated as some Democrats to make independent efforts.”

Republicans long have contended that there are more wealthy, self-motivated liberal contributors than there are conservative donors.

“Most big Republican givers tend to be establishment types who are not risk takers, while liberals like George Soros and Jane Fonda are risk takers. They put their money where their mouth is,” Mr. Keene said.

A majority of commissioners decided that the regulations allow private groups to raise and spend as much money as they want from individuals for the purpose of influencing federal elections.

“The issue, I think, is not whether what the 527 groups are doing is appropriate; I think absolutely, under the regulations it is. … The question is: Are our regulations appropriate? I don’t think they are,” Mr. Toner said.

But the other commissioners were mainly concerned about switching the rules of the campaign-finance game in the middle of an election cycle with only six months before the general election.

They also were angry about being pressured by Congress to act swiftly on an issue they said was complex, and one in which the intentions of Congress are not clear.

“If Congress thinks we’ve got it wrong, if that’s the case, I think there is a likelihood that they would move very quickly. It would at least clear up what their intent is,” Democratic Commissioner Danny Lee McDonald said.

Mr. Blunt was baffled by Mr. McDonald’s response.

“I thought the law, which I didn’t vote for, was very clear in banning the activities of third-party groups and particularly in establishing a ban on anything but money from individuals that met the campaign contribution limits,” he said.

The ruling already has drawn congressional scrutiny.

House Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney, Ohio Republican, said he will call commissioners into a hearing next week to explain their decision.

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