Fire the FEC

August 27, 2004

POST-WATERGATE designers of the Federal Election Commission may have believed they were building in a device to keep it honest by dividing appointments to the six-member board equally between Republicans and Democrats.

But what they did instead was create a system in which partisan advocates regulate campaign activities in a way that favors the interests of the parties at the expense of efforts to diminish the influence of money in politics.

Some version of the current slimefest between supporters of President Bush and those of his Democratic challenger, John Kerry, would likely have developed in any event. But if the FEC hadn't refused to fulfill its obligation to curb the campaign spending of unregulated outside groups, at least the candidates could have been held responsible for what's being said.

The current FEC should be replaced with an oversight board that serves as watchdog over campaign spending instead of a facilitator for all manner of shenanigans.

Republican John McCain, a principle author of a 2002 law intended to rid presidential campaigns of unlimited "soft money" contributions and to reduce the impact of spending by independent groups, is hopping mad because the FEC has allowed the opposite to happen.

Both candidates have benefited from the efforts of so-called 527 groups allowed to operate at an official, if often artificial, distance from the presidential campaigns, using unlimited contributions from fat cats.

Democrats, fearing their candidate would be hopelessly outmatched by Mr. Bush's "hard money" direct contributions, set up 527s early in the campaign cycle. These outside groups accepted donations worth millions from individuals such as financier George Soros and ran attack ads against the president during the spring when Mr. Kerry couldn't afford to.

Republicans got into the 527 game late but have begun to catch up. Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group running ads charging that Mr. Kerry embellished his military record, is one of these purportedly independent organizations that is doing Mr. Bush's dirty work.

Despite Senator McCain's contention that these groups are operating illegally, the FEC has refused to impose any limits on them until after this year's election. And even then, the restrictions are too weak.

Mr. Bush's offer yesterday to work with Mr. McCain on corrective legislation if courts fail to resolve the dispute came too late to have much effect on this year's contest - and could be a tactic to sidestep Mr. McCain's request that the president specifically condemn the attacks on Mr. Kerry's Vietnam record.

So the president should show good faith by doing both - repudiate the Swift boat sliming and support the creation of a tough and independent federal election authority that has no dog in the fight.

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