Friday, August 19, 2005

The Federal Election Commission voted yesterday to allow members of Congress to raise unlimited “soft money” donations to fight Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s redistricting plan in California.

The 6-0 decision came in response to a request from Reps. Howard L. Berman, California Democrat, and John T. Doolittle, California Republican, both of whom oppose the redistricting initiative.

The decision will allow federal officeholders to raise unlimited sums from unions, corporations and other donors to support or oppose any measure on the ballot of the Nov. 8 special election called by Mr. Schwarzenegger.

In general, federal campaign finance law limits federal officeholders to donations of $5,000 from individual contributors for nonfederal electoral issues. Commissioners decided that those limits, which lawmakers enacted in 2002, should not apply in the case of the special election, in part because there are no federal candidates on the ballot in November.

“I just have to conclude that they did not mean to get into the ballot-initiative kind of question,” Commissioner Danny L. McDonald said.

The redistricting initiative, Proposition 77, would take the responsibility of drawing boundaries for California’s congressional and state legislative districts away from lawmakers and give it to a panel of retired judges. The redistricting would occur as soon as possible, instead of after the 2010 census, which would be the normal timeline.

Mr. Schwarzenegger thinks the plan would lead to more competitive districts and to lawmakers who better represent voters. Of 153 state legislative and congressional seats up for grabs in California last November, none changed party hands.

Under California law, Mr. Schwarzenegger can raise unlimited sums for his campaign committee to promote the initiative. Mr. Berman and Mr. Doolittle argued that it would be unreasonable for federal law to prevent them from doing the same on the other side.

“Any other ruling would have been manifestly unfair,” Mr. Berman said after the vote. “Whatever you think of redistricting, whatever you think of politicians, I don’t know how an objective person wouldn’t come to the conclusion that when you have two sides of a proposition, both sides should be governed by the same rules.”

House members of both political parties have concerns about the redistricting plan. Mr. Doolittle and other Republicans fear redrawing district lines in Democratic-leaning California could cost the Republicans House seats. Democrats suspect Mr. Schwarzenegger’s motives, in part because of the example of Texas, where a Republican redistricting plan cost four Democrats their House seats last year.

“I think they’re terrified, I suppose, that the governor’s going to be able to terminate them,” FEC Chairman Scott E. Thomas said jokingly before the vote.

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