Shed a tear for the DNC and its soft money woes

November 29, 2001|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- A New Yorker cartoon depicts two men at a bar, one holding a martini glass and saying to the other, "I figure if I don't have that third martini, then the terrorists win."

It was a deft joke about using the events of Sept. 11 as an excuse for doing whatever one wants.

The following is no joke: The Democratic National Committee is asking the Federal Election Commission to suspend certain campaign finance regulations because, well, you see, the events of Sept. 11 ...

Almost all House and Senate Democrats favor, or say they do, further thickening the dense web of law that restricts the raising and spending of political money.

Which means more government supervision of what political money finances -- political speech.

Democrats say they favor this for political hygiene, and profess themselves especially scandalized by what is called soft money.

Unlike hard money, which is given to a particular candidate's campaign, soft money is given to parties for issue advertising and other "party-building" activities, and cannot be used to "influence" any federal election.

These distinctions are absurd and, like Prohibition, produce cynicism about the law. Trying to draw a bright line between hard and soft money is like trying to draw a line in a river. What is the point of issue advertising if not to influence elections?

Never mind. War is hell, and Sept. 11 caused the DNC to postpone some fund-raising events and solicitations.

The DNC had planned to grit its teeth, surmount its aversion to soft money and raise bushels of it. So now the DNC has asked the FEC to waive certain deadlines -- the arcane details would make your head hurt -- regulating the transfers of soft money to hard-money accounts.

No other Democratic or Republican committee made a plea for exemption from the law.

Prodded by some FEC commissioners, the FEC's general counsel initially suggested doing what the DNC wants. And quickly, perhaps because when skating on thin ice, safety depends on speed.

He suggested that the FEC issue an edict effectively suspending a longstanding FEC rule. And that this be done without allowing time for comment from those who would be regulated -- the parties and the public that speaks through them.

The brazenness of the DNC's request has provoked a highly improbable alliance: Common Cause, the self-designated "citizen's lobby" that never met a speech-rationing rule it did not like, and the American Conservative Union, which never met one it likes because it believes, quaintly, that Congress should make no law abridging the freedom of speech.

In a joint letter to the FEC, Donald Simon, counsel for Common Cause, and Cleta Mitchell, counsel for the ACU, said:

"While these two organizations reflect very different philosophical approaches to the issue of regulation of campaign finance, both organizations are steadfast in their commitment to the principle of equal enforcement and application of the Federal Election Campaign Act and the commission's rules and regulations. ... The events of Sept. 11, 2001, should not be used as an excuse by any party or the commission to undermine one of the most revered tenets of our country, namely, the rule of law."

Now, it may be difficult to make the FEC blush about that, considering that most of what the FEC exists to do undermines another of the country's revered tenets, the First Amendment. However, the FEC did allow time for comments, and Ms. Mitchell had some pungent ones.

She said there is no legal basis for an FEC authority "to arbitrarily select provisions of law capable of being from time to time suspended." Furthermore, the parties only briefly suspended the money chase. The DNC had a net debt of $900,000 before Sept. 11, and after that it managed to spend $3.4 million supporting candidates in New Jersey and Virginia, plus other expenditures -- funds that could have been used to comply with the law. Now the DNC could cut expenditures and increase borrowing to comply.

So, Ms. Mitchell said, the DNC has not demonstrated an inability to comply with the law. "What the DNC has demonstrated is its determination to make expenditures as desired from a political perspective in the weeks preceding the November elections and then to seek relief from the FEC from the burden of the law."

It is a burden that Democrats preen about enacting and vow to increase. Now they find it inconvenient? All one can say is: Poor babies!

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.