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FEC Rules to Restrict Nonparty Groups' Funds

August 20, 2004|From Times Wire Services

WASHINGTON — The Federal Election Commission adopted regulations Thursday that would make it more difficult for political groups to raise and spend millions of dollars in donations for the 2006 election.

The rules are effective Jan. 1 and will not limit this year's spending by nonparty groups such as America Coming Together and the Media Fund, which are aligned with the Democrats, and Progress for America on the Republican side.

"I think we have done something huge," said Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat.

Democratic Commissioner Scott Thomas, who voted against the rules and wanted broader restrictions, said he feared that the new regulations would be easy to evade. Groups would just have to alter the phrasing of their fundraising solicitations to avoid falling under the FEC's oversight, he said.

The rules passed on a 4-2 vote.

One rule involves fundraising solicitations. If an appeal to a prospective donor "indicates that any portion of the funds" will be used to support or oppose a federal candidate, the maximum that can be contributed will be $5,000.

Groups that refer specifically to President Bush or Sen. John F. Kerry are raising contributions that in some cases exceed $10 million. A group raising money for both federal and nonfederal candidates must raise at least half of its funds in amounts of $5,000 or less, according to the new rules.

Another rule governs the way the groups collect "soft money," defined as unlimited donations from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals, and "hard money," defined as limited donations from individuals.

Under current rules, America Coming Together, for example, has financed much of its work using soft money. If the new rules had been in effect, they might have crippled ACT and the Media Fund, both of which got off the ground with multimillion-dollar donations from wealthy donors determined to defeat Bush.

Fred Wertheimer, head of the campaign watchdog group Democracy 21, said the new rules wouldn't stop soft-money groups "from blatantly violating the federal campaign finance laws."

Thursday's vote marked the second time this year that the commission had debated how a new campaign finance law affected nonparty groups that were spending huge sums in this year's election.

The law, which took effect in November 2002, bars national party committees, members of Congress, the president and congressional and presidential candidates from raising or spending soft money, and broadly bars its use in federal elections.

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