- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Americans, already using their cell phones to make charitable contributions or vote for favorite contestants on television shows such as “Dancing With the Stars,” soon could be dialing in campaign contributions to their favorite members of Congress.

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is expected to rule within weeks on a bid by the wireless industry to allow small political donations through text messages, potentially opening up a whole new source of cash for politicians and fundraisers.

The plan is proposed by CTIA - The Wireless Association, a powerful Washington trade group, which manages the system of five- and six-digit numbers leased by third-party entities to communicate with and raise money from cell-phone customers.

The donations would be capped at $10 each, according to FEC filings. The group says the proposal would work similarly to how cell-phone users can now make charitable contributions. In the aftermath of the January earthquake in Haiti, for example, the Red Cross raised millions of dollars through text messaging.

But whether the same technology could, or should, belong in politics isn’t yet clear.

The FEC issued a staff report raising concerns about the idea last month, saying in part that the plan could commingle corporate funds and political contributions, which isn’t allowed under federal campaign law.

Caleb P. Burns, a lawyer with Wiley Rein, which represents CTIA, said he spoke for about an hour at a hearing before the FEC commissioners earlier this month to address issues in the staff report. CTIA also agreed to extend a deadline by the FEC to rule on the request until Nov. 22.

Mr. Burns said some of the FEC commissioners expressed an interest in approving portions of the plan, and he was hopeful the final FEC ruling would be more permissive than what the FEC staff originally recommended.

Campaign-finance expert Arn Pearson of Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog group, called the idea “intriguing” and said the proposal could help expand the influence of small donors in elections. But he also said he would want assurances that the wireless industry, already a major lobbying force on Capitol Hill, wouldn’t be in a position to back one candidate or cause over another.

“They’re active political players and spend a lot of money to influence elections,” Mr. Pearson said. “I can’t help but worry that there’s not some angle that’s not visible on paper.”

In FEC filings, CTIA officials said there wouldn’t be any favoritism.

When forwarding contributions to political campaigns, the wireless-service providers would follow the same standard business practices used in collecting and forwarding funds being used for other purposes, CTIA said.

While wireless providers wouldn’t forward donors names to campaigns, CTIA said text messages could be sent to the donors to certify their donations comply with federal law.

The text message would include questions to ensure that donors are making the contributions on their own behalf, that they are not foreign nationals and that the text message donations won’t exceed $50 to each recipient per calendar year. Under FEC rules, anonymous contributions are limited to $50.

Fundraisers and candidates across the political spectrum are anticipating the ruling.

“It’s something we’re keeping an eye on,” said John Randall, ecampaign director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, adding that officials probably would test the plan if approved.

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

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