Reform groups take FEC to court over soft-money contributions

Friday, September 29, 2000

Two leading groups touting campaign-finance reform recently sued the
Federal Election Commission claiming the agency has been lax in enforcing
federal election laws against the Bush and Gore campaigns’ use of soft

Officials with Common Cause and Democracy 21 hope their lawsuit will
reveal that the two presidential campaigns consistently violate the law by
coordinating multimillion-dollar ad campaigns with the Republican and
Democratic national committees.

“It is our hope that the courts will make clear what is obvious
to everyone in the country except the FEC,” said Scott Harshbarger,
president of Common Cause. “That these party ad campaigns are a massive
subversion of our campaign-finance laws — laws meant to protect all of us
from the corrupting influence of big special-interest money.”

Political party spokesmen deny that their parties have broken the law.
But they disagree on whether the First Amendment allows government to restrict
the flow of hard and soft campaign dollars.

Hard money — donations given directly to candidates for their
election campaigns — is mostly regulated. For example, an individual can
contribute only $1,000 to a presidential candidate each year.

But soft-money contributions are mostly unregulated, allowing an
individual to give unlimited amounts to a political party for general purposes
such as get-out-the-vote drives.

Republicans generally argue that restricting both hard and soft money
would limit political speech and thus violate the First Amendment. The
Democrats, on the other hand, have said efforts to reform campaign finance,
including banning soft money, can be done without offending free-speech

Both Common Cause and Democracy 21 believe that a soft-money ban is
legal and essential. That aside, their lawsuit contends that both George W.
Bush and Al Gore agreed to forgo other contributions and to limit their
expenditures upon receipt of some $68 million in public money for their

The suit asks a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the
District of Columbia to clarify existing federal election laws to the FEC, in
hopes that the panel will find that the two political parties coordinated their
efforts with the candidates.

“The stakes involved in this lawsuit are very high,” said
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. “In coordination with their
political parties, the Bush and Gore presidential campaigns are expected to
spend as much as $100 million or more on soft-money ads during the general

“This case provides an opportunity to get past the indefensible
roadblocks that have been set out by the FEC commissioners and to obtain a
federal court ruling prior to the November election that deals with the blatant
misuse of soft money by both presidential campaigns,” he said.

Harshbarger, Wertheimer and Archibald Cox, a former Watergate special
prosecutor who also joined the lawsuit, say they have overwhelming evidence
proving that both the Republicans and the Democrats coordinated campaign
efforts with their respective candidates.

“Do we talk to the Bush campaign? Absolutely,” said Mark
Pfeifle, spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “But the final
signatures and control rests entirely with Jim Nicholson and the rest of the
Republican National Committee.”

Rick Hess, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, agreed
that some level of coordination goes on, but said it’s not only legal but
sensible. The presidential nominee, after all, is the leader of the party.

“We’re following the law to the letter,” Hess said. “We
do exactly what the law lets us do.”

He said he wouldn’t comment specifically on the lawsuit because the
DNC isn’t named in it. But he said the goal of Common Cause and Democracy 21 is
the same as his group’s: to eliminate soft money.

Hess said a soft-money ban could become reality immediately with a
simple agreement between the two political parties.

“Soft money could be banned tomorrow,” Hess said. “But
every time we reach our hands out to the Republican Party, it’s slapped

Pfeifle said the two reform groups should focus their efforts on
actual violations of election laws, instead of trying to subvert the First
Amendment by placing new restrictions on political speech.

“It’s unfortunate that these groups do not use their clout and
lawyers to examine how the Democrats in 1996 completely offended the election
laws already on the books,” Pfeifle said. “Then we could go out and
do what we need to fix the system.”

Roger Pilon, vice president for legal affairs at the Cato Institute, a
libertarian think tank, agreed that election laws might have been broken if the
two party committees coordinated their efforts with the candidates.

But Pilon added that the concept of coordination is very subjective
and very difficult to prove. He said he wasn’t surprised by the efforts of
Common Cause and Democracy 21, characterizing their lawsuit as “a
broadside argument against so-called soft-money donations.”

“Soft money is what you should expect when you don’t let anyone
give hard money,” Pilon said. “You push the balloon in on one side,
it will pop out on the other side.”

He said the two groups and the Democrats are afraid of facing the
First Amendment.

“They make references that soft-money donors are squeezing them
through a loophole,” Pilon said. “That’s the equivalent of saying the
First Amendment is a loophole. And it is. The Constitution is a grand loophole.
It allows the oppressed a loophole with free speech. And they want to close
that loophole.”

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