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Campaign-finance reformers target FEC

Sponsors of a campaign finance law that survived a court fight now have a new goal: eliminating the Federal Election Commission.

Sponsors of a campaign finance law that survived a court fight now have a new goal: eliminating the Federal Election Commission.

With the Supreme Court decision supporting the ban on corporate and union donations to political parties, the law’s advocates say it is now time to do away with the agency they blame for creating “soft money” in the first place.

Sen. Russ Feingold said Thursday that legislation to replace the FEC with a new agency is among the top priorities of the law’s sponsors, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass.

“I would say it’s full speed ahead,” Feingold, D-Wis., said in a telephone interview. “We have the wind at our back.”

In its ruling, the court echoed the law’s sponsors in saying the commission had erroneously allowed national party committees to raise soft money — corporate, union and unlimited donations — and permitted the flood of big special-interest political checks that made the new law necessary.

Partisan deadlocks
The commission consists of three Democrats and three Republicans. Feingold and other critics contend its members are more interested in protecting the interests of political insiders than enforcing campaign finance rules, and that the FEC too often deadlocks along party lines.
The four lawmakers want to replace it with a three-member panel.

The new Federal Election Administration would have a chairman and two other members appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The two members would come from different parties, and no appointee could come from the current FEC, have been a party employee, have been a candidate or officeholder or have worked for one.

“It’s great to pass a law, but if it’s not properly enforced — including the fact that some of the members of the FEC actually said they don’t believe in campaign finance laws — then we have a problem and we need to address it,” Feingold said.

Two commissioners, Republicans Bradley Smith and David Mason, had urged Congress to reject the new law. Both have said they will enforce it, despite their personal views.

Commission Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub noted that the FEC helped defend the law in court.
She said she was concerned that the proposal for a three-member panel would give whichever party held the White House an unfair majority vote on enforcement questions.

“I just think it’s a pipe dream to think any administration is not going to appoint somebody of their political party to be that top administrator,” said Weintraub, a Democrat.

Closing the loopholes
In addition to the FEC legislation, Shays and Meehan are suing to try to overturn FEC regulations they say opened loopholes in the soft-money ban.

Feingold said there are some aspects of Wednesday’s ruling he will watch to make sure they do not lead to end-runs around the law. Among them, the court said:

—National party committees, though banned from raising soft money, can coordinate with state and local parties on how those committees spend their soft money.

—National party leaders cannot raise soft money in their official capacity, but can do so “in their individual capacities” for any group except a national party committee.

Meehan said he wants to work with the FEC to make sure loopholes do not open, even as he and the others pursue legislation to replace it. He and Shays are braced for a long fight over the proposal, but say they’re ready: After all, it took more than seven years to win the new law.

Other priorities for the lawmakers include legislation to overhaul presidential public financing and reduce TV ad costs for candidates.