FEC: Devil's in the details
process will determine how campaign finance reform is enacted.
By Derek Willis
If reporters are unsure about the effects of the new campaign finance
law, they have good reason to be: almost everybody else is, too.
That's because, though President Bush signed the McCain-Feingold
bill into law on March 27, the Federal Election Commission has the
job of writing the regulations that actually will become the tenets
of the law. And the going hasn't been easy, or even simple, to explain.
Currently the commission is wrestling with the portion of the law
that restricts "issue advertisements" that have proliferated
since the 1996 election. The law bans broadcast ads aired within
30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election that are paid
for with corporate or labor union treasury money and clearly identify
a federal candidate.
In mid-June, the FEC began crafting the rules that would ban national
political parties from raising and spending "soft money"
-- funds raised outside the limits set forth by federal law. Although
the commission made a number of changes to the proposed rules, very
few of them significantly altered the impact. Most made it easier
for state and local parties to conduct get-out-the-vote and voter
registration drives without filing federal campaign reports. But
a few changes are worthy of mention.
First, the commission limited the period that included federal election
activity -- expenditures in connection with a campaign -- by changing
the date they officially begin from Jan. 1 of an election year to
the earliest filing date for ballot access for a primary election
in each state. That means some of the new restrictions might not
apply to state political parties or interest groups outside of that
Second, the commission exempted Internet communications from the
soft money ban. In other words, state political parties could use
soft money to pay for advertisements broadcast only over the Internet.
Whether or not this will happen in a significant way is an open
question, but it's something to keep an eye on.
Third, the FEC expanded the definition of "building" to
include "facility," which caused some observers to predict
that state parties would be allowed to buy equipment and furniture
using soft money. The national parties can do neither after Nov.
6. Some supporters of the law say the commission also opened the
way for state parties to buy larger-than-needed buildings and rent
space to supporters.
The issue ad regulations could prove even trickier, since they are
often cited as constitutionally suspect. Indeed, the law has a "backup"
provision that would take effect if the initial language was struck
down by the courts. (Oral arguments in a consolidated lawsuit will
take place in early December.)
The FEC is charged with writing rules reqarding broadcast ads that
"promote, support, attack or oppose" a referenced federal
candidate, are funded by soft money and air within the 30 or 60-day
window. The commission can choose to exempt certain types of broadcasts
from those regulations, including public service announcements or
programming paid for by a third party. In other words, a political
ad created by, say, the Sierra Club could be shuttled to another
group (or person) which then could pay for its placement on television.
Another possible exemption could focus on lobbying communications
- what most experts consider true "issue-oriented" ads.
But it's likely that in crafting an exemption the commission could
provide political groups with a road map for closely skirting the
law. The FEC has to finalize these regulations within 270 days of
the law's enactment, so stay tuned.
The law also requires television and radio stations to keep better
records of political advertising buys, but does not mandate that
a central database be kept. The Campaign
Finance Institute, a nonprofit think tank, recommended that
the FEC require stations to forward information on political ad
buys to the Federal Communications Commission, where it would be
kept in a publicly-available database. A centralized database would
be of enormous value to reporters, but the commissioners are doubtless
sensitive of the requirements such a directive would place on every
television and radio station to forward the information to Washington.
Derek Willis covers the House of Representatives for Congressional
Quarterly and is the founder of thescoop.org.
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