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Capital Is on Edge as Court Tackles Campaign Finance

September 09, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — There are perhaps a couple of thousand Americans versed in the critical nuances of the new campaign finance law -- a group including members of Congress, White House aides, Republican and Democratic party professionals, an assortment of lawyers and, as shown Monday in a rare late-summer hearing, a deeply probing Supreme Court.

Then there are people like Sandra Jenkins.

A retired school principal from a small East Texas town who was sightseeing in Washington, Jenkins scanned the camera-clogged scene on the courthouse steps and asked about the commotion.

Told that the Supreme Court was hearing oral arguments on whether the law reformed a money-soiled system or unconstitutionally regulated political expression, Jenkins said she recalled the long-running congressional debate but the details escaped her. Still, she understood the big picture.

"If you don't have limits, then you're just putting all the power in the hands of the people who have the money," Jenkins said. "That seems a little skewed."

But she added: "You can have big money that goes to good things. It's really not that simple. I hope [the nine Supreme Court justices] know what they're doing."

So does official Washington -- which was on edge Monday as the justices heard arguments on the most significant fund-raising regulations enacted since the Watergate scandal.

The law, passed last year, shook up the political system. It banned national parties from raising or spending the unlimited donations known as "soft money" -- checks from individuals, unions or corporations that often totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars. It prohibited certain broadcast advertisements that sought to influence federal elections. It loosened limits on donations known as "hard money," doubling the cap on individual donations to candidates to $2,000 per election. And it established a bewildering array of other fund-raising do's and don'ts for federal candidates and parties.

Washington is still adjusting to the new rule book 10 months after it took effect. And the Supreme Court's ruling -- which many expect before year's end -- could require further changes.

Lawmakers had debated proposed reforms for the better part of a decade before passing the law in 2002, and several attended Monday's four-hour hearing in the case known as McConnell vs. Federal Election Commission.

The lead plaintiff, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), was there, joined by other opponents of the new law -- Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Reps. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and John T. Doolittle (R-Rocklin).

Pence, a second-term congressman, sat in the court's high-columned chambers Monday for the first time, something of a tourist himself from the other side of Capitol Hill.

"Nice to sit in the front row," he said during a break. Pence said he was encouraged that Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, considered swing votes in the case, seemed "receptive to our arguments."

Doolittle said he doubted that he would get what he wanted: the abolition of campaign finance regulations.

"I fully expect the court's going to rewrite" the law, he said. "But it'll be a mishmash. There'll be some things I like and some things I don't like."

While high-powered lawyers parried aggressive questions from the justices, Doolittle said he felt the urge at times to get up and speak. "It was strange to just have to sit there and listen and be quiet," he said.

Also on hand was Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, which sued to overturn the law's ban on soft-money donations. Democrats had relied more on such contributions and the GOP, by drawing on extensive donor lists, has had little problem raising money under the new rules.

But Gillespie complained to reporters that the law stymied Republican involvement in state politics and left the party unable to respond to well-funded attacks by liberal interest groups. He said he would "welcome the opportunity" to resume raising soft money.

Proponents, though, were sanguine about their chances before a court that has time and again upheld the constitutionality of campaign finance limits. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), the main authors of the law, reiterated to reporters their view that the law fixed a loophole-ridden system.

Reps. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), the law's chief House sponsors, also attended the hearing. Shays said his daughter, Jeramy, and an aide stayed in line at the court overnight to get extra tickets to the packed session.

"None of the justices disputed that this was consistent with past law," Shays said. "If for some reason the law is overturned, basically they're saying the Wild West rules."

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