What will happen if the FEC tells the mostly Democratic fund-raising groups called "527 organizations" that they can't run ads, do voter mobilization, or raise money as planned for the November election? Mother Jones magazine just published an article that says that the 527s are in danger of becoming much more strictly regulated, and could be told by the FEC that they can only raise $2000 per person, not millions like George Soros has contributed.
Both Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) threatened Wednesday to go to court to force the FEC to crack down on the 527s. Feingold said the FEC must not allow campaign-finance laws to be circumvented.
The six-member, bipartisan Federal Election Commission is scheduled to vote on May 13 on new regulations to restrict fund-raising by the 527 groups. With the unlimited "soft money" contributions to national political parties ostensibly banned by the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA, also known as the McCain-Feingold law), Democrats are counting on the 527 groups, bankrolled by Soros, Real Networks CEO Robert Glaser, labor unions, and others, to mobilize voters.
If the 527s do their job, Kerry will be on equal footing or better with Bush on the financial playing field. The 527 groups' Bush-bashing TV ads, as well as their voter identification and mobilization efforts, will do much of the heavy lifting for Kerry in the period between now and the Democratic National Convention, which begins on July 26.
The Washington Post reports that liberal 527s have created a political machine that is essentially a parallel party, running expensive political ads, get-the-vote out campaigns, polling, research, rapid response, and fundraising.
How I wish the Democrats had been building their base for years, the way the GOP has. The Dean/Trippi model would be so much better, if only it were big enough. It sure makes a lot more sense to have one political machine/one main campaign rather than two parallel ones that can't legally coordinate. Also, it makes me a bit nervous that we are relying on the 527s when they are at risk of the FEC cracking down on them in the middle of the campaign and after people have made these large donations to them.
The Post reports: "Beyond the Media Fund, the entities include Americans Coming Together (ACT), which is responsible for get-out-the-vote efforts; America Votes, the umbrella organization that will stitch together the activities of various progressive organizations; the Thunder Road Group, which will concentrate on research and rapid response; and the Joint Victory Campaign 2004, a combined fundraising committee."
ACT vows that it will inform voters about "the extremist positions of the Bush Republican agenda.... We will find the exact voters who believe in change but don't vote, in key counties, key precincts, and key neighborhoods and we will bring the issues right to their front doors." ACT will work primarily through phone, mail and door-to-door voter recruitment and mobilization.
According to Mother Jones, as long as the groups don't actually contribute money to, or coordinate with, a campaign, they're free to do pretty much whatever else they want, with no restrictions on how much soft money they get. In practice, analysts say, there is a lot of wink-wink coordination that goes on between 527s and parties.
Democrats are the main beneficiaries of the loophole in the McCain-Feingold Act that allows 527s to operate like this. While Republican 527s do exist, they aren't as well developed as the Democratic ones; they don't need to be, so great is Bush's fundraising edge.
The Center for Responsive Politics and two other campaign finance watchdogs, Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center, have also urged the FEC to quickly issue new rules which would crack down on the 527s.
"These 527 groups have said that their purpose is to defeat George Bush," Center for Responsive Politics executive director Larry Noble said Tuesday. "Our answer is that they are political committees in which case they are working under the broader legal standard of `promoting, supporting attacking or opposing' a candidate. Therefore the ads have to be paid for with `hard' money - which is limited to $5,000 per donor per election and can not be corporate or labor union money."
McCain also denounced FEC Vice Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, who has voiced opposition to imposing new regulations on the 527 groups before the Nov. 2 election. Weintraub says regulators should not "rush to make hasty decisions."
The FEC Chairman seems to be comfortable with the 527 organizations as they are. In comments to reporters after the Senate hearing, FEC Chairman Bradley Smith, who was appointed to the commission by President Clinton at the behest of Republicans, voiced skepticism about McCain's and Feingold's view that the 527s are acting in violation of the law.
Smith stated, "Even if we (the FEC) were to rope in these groups, nothing would stop George Soros from just hiring Harold Ickes and doing the exact same thing. He (Soros) would not be a political committee, he would just be a really rich guy hiring people directly to do this."
Long term, I think I agree with McCain and Feingold. Short term, I think it's too harsh to not let Democrats level the playing field for this November's election. That seems to be similar to FEC Vicechair Weintraub's position. What do you think the FEC should rule, and what do you think the Dems should do if the FEC does crack down?