Back on the Money Train

The FEC's ruling on 527 committees lets soft money in and crowds ordinary Americans out

After the United States Supreme Court unexpectedly upheld the most important provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), it almost looked as if the days of unlimited soft money donations were over. Passed in March 2002, the law severely limited what kind of money politicians and activist groups could use to finance political campaigns. It was a monumental leap toward a fair and transparent political process.

But new Federal Elections Commission (FEC) rules passed last Wednesday give big donors a fresh loophole to exploit—so-called 527 committees. According to the FEC recommendations, 527s will have to use some hard money—which is heavily regulated—but can also raise and spend soft money, just like political parties, political action committees and other fundraising organizations could before the BCRA. So these 527s—set up in response to the prohibitions of the soft-money ban—can finance the same issue ads the BCRA was meant to get rid of.

For the sake of lasting reform of a frustratingly corrupt system, the FEC should reconsider its ruling. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize how soft money is inimical to America’s democratic process. Massive, unregulated donations give private citizens, unions and corporations undeniable leverage over the politicians and parties they’re funding. After all, politicians can afford to blow off the demands of a $200 donor, but they’re not going to ignore the guy giving them $200,000. The BCRA was supposed to curb the influence of large donors by limiting donations to individual candidates to $2000 and regulating the electioneering activities of advocacy and party-affiliated groups. The FEC should have played its part in eliminating the “appearance of corruption” that the Supreme Court cited in its decision, and it still can when it meets to discuss further 527 regulation in March—if its members can get past petty partisan politics.

But that would mean that the FEC—a bipartisan commission with equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans—would have to put common-sense policy before the bottom line, which doesn’t seem likely. After all, the strongest supporters of the FEC ruling were commission members from the party that has outraised any other in terms of soft money—the Democrats. And unless the Democratic Party gets a lot better at raising hard money, the country will most likely have to endure continued corruption in Washington.