GOP seeks end to soft money restrictions

Friday, April 17, 1998

Seeking an end to soft money restrictions, the Republican National Committee filed suit against the Federal Election Commission this week, demanding that the national political party be allowed to spend as much of its contributions as it wishes on issue ads.

Current federal election laws limit how much soft money—the unlimited contributions parties get from unions, businesses and individuals for party-building efforts—may be used in campaigns.

“The unions, which do not disclose their donors, and the special interest groups, which do not disclose their donors, can all use 100 percent of their funds for issue ads,” said RNC spokesman Michael Collins. “The political parties, which were formed to debate issues, are restricted.

“That is an impediment to free speech,” Collins said. “It is an unconstitutional disparity in treatment, and we mean to set it aside.”

The RNC lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court in Alexandria, Va., claims the regulations violate the party's First Amendment rights of free speech. The RNC might enjoy

some support from at least two unexpected allies—state Democratic parties from Ohio and Idaho—that plan to file similar lawsuits in their respective states.

Robert F. Bauer, lawyer for the state parties, told the Washington Post, that the lawsuits were justified because regulations favor special interests over the parties.

“The situation has become completely insane,” Bauer said. “Interest groups are completely free to spend exactly as they please and political parties are struggling under the weight of regulations which are not applied to interest groups.”

During the 1996 campaign, the Democratic and Republican parties spent nearly $70 million for “issue advocacy” ads, advertising that doesn't explicitly endorse or denounce candidates but often refers to them by name. The figure doesn't include the millions of dollars outside groups such as unions spent on similar issue-oriented ads.

Last year, the RNC spent some $800,000 for issue ads in a special election for a House seat in New York. The ads, which blamed the Democratic candidate for voting for tax increases, helped win the seat for the Republicans.

Current FEC rules allow issue advertising from national parties but restrict soft money expenditures to 40 percent. The parties must use direct contributions from individuals and businesses to pay for the remaining costs. State parties may spend more soft money toward issue ads but must still finance them with a mix of monies.

The lawsuit is a “frontal assault” on election laws, said Don Simon, general counsel for the pro-reform Common Cause.

“The RNC suit is seeking to dismantle meaningful regulation of the political parties and will allow parties to spend unlimited soft money virtually at will,” Simon said. “In light of what we saw in 1996, with the excessive use of soft money, this challenge poses a major threat to the campaign finance system.”

But Simon said he thinks the courts ultimately aren't going to allow the parties “to have the unfettered ability to inject millions of dollars of corporate and union money into the campaigns.”

Collins said the lawsuit is a viable one because the RNC can demonstrate how the system has been inconsistent and unfair.

“We are the only organization in America that has not been consistently allowed to use soft money to fully fund issue advocacy,” Collins said.

Collins maintains that the Democratic National Committee enjoyed unregulated spending in 1995 when it funded a nationwide health issues ad campaign solely through soft money donations.

After unsuccessfully lobbying the FEC to hold the DNC to limits, RNC officials determined it was time to challenge the regulation.

“The Constitution doesn't give unions greater rights than the political parties,” Collins said.