Campaign finance reform has noble goals;
the presidency, without doubt, should never be for sale. But at
what point does enforcing the McCain-Feingold ban on soft money
become excessive — potentially dangerous? In February, the
Federal Election Commission proposed a new series of regulations
that would convert some “527 groups” —
essentially interest groups named after the section of the tax code
that governs them — into political action committees. Any 527
that spends more than $50,000 per year on voter outreach or
political activities is reclassified, thus becoming subject to the
restrictions of the McCain-Feingold law.

Suhael Momin

Once a group is bound by the McCain-Feingold act, it can no
longer receive unlimited and unregulated soft money donations; a
PAC, at most, can receive $5,000 from a single person per year. If
the average 527 group were to be bound by these rules, it would
find itself financially insoluble — most 527s rely heavily on
large one-time “soft money” contributions to fund their
operations. In essence, the new rules present 527 groups with an
unfortunate choice: one, stop advocating issues, or two, face
financial meltdown. No matter which path a 527 chooses, it is
consigned to the same fate — ineffectiveness. The regulations
effectively seek to quash 527 groups in a move that stifles the
right of citizens to free speech and press.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), instrumental in pushing the FEC to
propose the new regulations, has argued that because 527 groups are
obviously engaged in partisan politics, they must be regulated just
like political action committees. However, partisan 527 groups are
already bound by existing rules — they cannot explicitly
advocate the election or removal of a candidate. For the most part,
they critique candidates’ records in an effort to sway
elections. In effect, they seek to express the views of their
members and patrons by pooling the resources of many to facilitate
a broad dissemination of shared beliefs. Simply because these views
affect elections, 527’s are targeted for destruction. The
right of citizens to freely express their views and push for change
is being regulated.

 

More importantly, and more worrisome, is
the possibility that 527s are not mere victims of overzealous
enforcement, but rather targets of a partisan campaign strategy. It
was predominantly Republicans who led the charge to reclassify
527’s, which coincidentally tend toward the Left.

Coming off his best month of fundraising to date, Sen. John
Kerry has a campaign treasure chest slightly shy of $50 million.
President Bush, coming off a merely average month, has a vast
armory in excess of $150 million — some sources put it at
$170 million. To make the election competitive, Democrats are
betting heavily on 527 groups, which have millions of dollars to
spend on countering Bush. America Coming Together, the richest
Democratically leaning 527 group, plans to spend $95 million
dollars this election cycle, while the Moveon.com Voter Fund has
already begun running the trademark “Bush in 30
seconds” line of ads. Without these groups, Democrats have
little chance to match the Republican war machine’s ability
to spend money and produce ads; Bush would benefit even more from
his huge fundraising advantage.

 

Thus, the dangers of the new FEC
regulations are two-fold. First, they threaten citizens’
rights to free speech and expression; the death of 527 groups would
limit the ability of citizens to work together and influence
elections. Secondly, this potentially partisan move could very well
swing the election to Bush, purely because he has a richer base
that is more able to write $5,000 checks to his campaign. While
campaign finance aimed to level the playing field and reduce the
role of money in federal elections, the enaction of these new FEC
regulations would only amplify Bush’s ability to win an
election through superior funding. Luckily, while Republicans
pressured the FEC into proposing the new regulations, the
regulations must be voted on by the six-member commission before
going into effect. The commission, thankfully, is nonpartisan. In
keeping with the spirit of the First Amendment and the ideal of
fair elections, it should ensure these regulations are killed.

Momin can be reached at
“mailto:smomin@umich.edu”>smomin@umich.edu.

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