Fighting to put teeth into election reforms

March 27, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Not satisfied with enactment of the strongest campaign finance reform since the Watergate years, reformers are about to launch another drive to put backbone in the election enforcement agency that for years has been a pushover for errant candidates and influence-buyers.

The idea is to abolish the Federal Election Commission and create a new agency led by a strong-minded independent director with the muscle to achieve real compliance with the new law.

The proposal is being crafted by a task force under the aegis of Democracy 21, a pro-reform think tank headed by Fred Wertheimer, a leader in the recently successful drive to curb the flow of unregulated "soft" money into federal elections.

The congressional architects of the ban, Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold and Reps. Christopher Shays and Marty Meehan, are expected to join the effort to get rid of what Mr. Wertheimer calls a "failed agency." But stiff opposition from many of the same foes of the soft-money ban is poised to save the commission.

The FEC has been frozen in stalemate almost since its inception in 1974 by its mandatory composition of three Republicans and three Democrats, recommended by the congressional leaders in each party. Mr. Wertheimer charges that their votes and actions are governed by their politics and ideologies and consequently are reduced to ineffectiveness.

What the FEC needs, he says, is an administrator with the professionalism and reputation for independence -- comparable to that of recent heads of the FBI, the General Accounting Office and the Federal Reserve Board -- who would "take enforcement out of the political system."

But the leading Republican expert on campaign law, Jan Baran, ridicules the idea, asking: "Do we need another J. Edgar Hoover to supervise our campaigns? To give that much power to one person is dangerous."

Mr. Baran also questions the willingness of members of Congress of both parties to create a czar to oversee campaign money laws that are so critical to their own elections. "It's hard for me to envision," he says, "but even Congress has its momentary lapses of judgment."

Mr. Wertheimer acknowledges the difficulty of persuading Congress to make the change, but notes that banning soft money also was once considered an impossible task and finally was achieved.

Mr. Baran counters that "it's one thing to vote for reform and double the money coming to you" -- a reference to the new law's raising regulated "hard" money from $1,000 a contributor to $2,000 -- and another for members of Congress to "create a rogue agency not in their control." When, he asks, "has Congress relinquished that kind of control over anything?"

The reformers argue that it makes little sense to strengthen the law to combat the influence of special interest groups and corruption in federal campaigns and then leave the toothless, hopelessly splintered enforcement agency in place.

Their complaint, one of long standing, has taken on greater urgency and volume with the presence on the FEC of two admitted foes of campaign finance laws. Commissioners Bradley Smith and David Mason have been outspoken in their opposition to any regulation of the flow of campaign money, even as Congress was considering the latest reforms.

One concern is how the FEC as constituted will deal with the inevitable schemes for getting around the new law. One obvious dodge is the creation and increased funding of more so-called independent expenditure groups, which may spend all they want for a candidate provided they act entirely on their own, with no collusion whatever with him or his campaign.

The reformers fear that the evenly split commission will fail to keep these groups honest, thus opening the floodgates to the unregulated, unlimited soft money that the new law is intended to close. They hope their recent legislative success has created a new climate of concern and awareness among voters who will demand effective enforcement.

But it's just as likely that the good lawmakers, having finally passed a modest reform for the first time in more than 25 years, will feel they've done enough to peddle themselves to voters as do-gooders and need to do no more.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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