Backdoor legislating

August 05, 2002

THEY CALL IT the Federal Election Commission, but it ought to be thought of as Loophole Incorporated.

Finding ways around the campaign finance laws has been a growth industry, but now come the regulators to make the holes bigger -- and right in the face of the much-ballyhooed McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law.

The commission seems unrelenting and unrepentant in its determination to undermine the new law named for its chief Senate sponsors, Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Republican John McCain of Arizona.

In the first set of rules it has established for implementing the new law, the FEC would allow big givers to stay in the giving game big-time. Its members voted to establish the narrowest possible definition of what is banned under the new law. The commission more or less invited Washington lobbyists to show eager clients how to ingratiate themselves lavishly and lawfully. The powerful special interests could dance around reform.

All of this is the work of commission members who disagree viscerally with the purpose of the commission on which they serve; they don't want limits on campaign contributions, so they vote to make them meaningless.

What an arrogation of power -- and they're not the only enemies of reform. Others who want to vitiate McCain- Feingold say the law puts honest office seekers at risk of indictment by zealous prosecutors: The poor unsuspecting candidate will violate the law without knowing it.

It's a laughable and unworthy argument.

If candidates and public officials can't understand the law, they don't deserve the public trust.

But don't worry -- they understand it all too well. That's why they want to weaken it.

And here's the icing on the cynic's cake. Congress has no good options for defending the spirit of its reforms. The two houses could vote to overturn the commission's rules, an action that would have to be approved by the president. But wouldn't that process have to be repeated over and over and over? Keep in mind that many lawmakers didn't particularly like reform anyway, not wishing to cut off their sources of funds.

Congress could also sue to have the commission's rules overturned, which seems a better short-term solution.

Long term? A brand-new regulatory scheme is needed, one that makes clear who makes the laws.

Who would have guessed that reform of the campaign finance laws would become secondary to re-establishing congressional authority?

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