An Honest Man

Posted February 24, 2004 at 6:01pm

Amid Democratic hypocrisy and GOP cynicism over campaign finance reform, a principled actor has emerged — and, in the view of some reformers, an unlikely one at that: Federal Election Commission Chairman Brad Smith, a Republican who last week denounced his own party for trying to stop the opposition from speaking.

Democrats made most of the noise, supplied most of the votes and gained most of the editorial praise when Congress passed the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act barring political parties from collecting unlimited soft money. It looked like a righteous act of self-denial, since the Democratic Party was much more dependent on large, unregulated donations than the GOP.

But the ink was scarcely dry on the new law before big Democratic donors began looking for ways around it — to wit, creation of so-called 527 committees that could collect soft money from rich donors, trade unions and corporations and act like shadow political parties. Ex-President Bill Clinton’s former top political operative, Harold Ickes, formed the Media Fund to run advertising promoting Democrats and denouncing Republicans. Union operatives organized the Partnership for America’s Families, and liberal groups formed America Coming Together and the Voter Fund to register and turn out voters.

The 527s are perfectly legal under BCRA despite protestations to the contrary from reform groups and the law’s chief sponsor, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), even though they violate the spirit of the reform. But if Democrats are hypocritical in depending upon 527s, Republicans are both hypocritical and cynical in trying to stifle them.

Republicans, in the main, opposed BCRA in the first place, claiming that political money is “speech” and shouldn’t be curtailed. But as soon as they saw Democrats forming 527s, the GOP moved to get the FEC to put them out of business.

A Republican 527, Americans for a Better Country, went to the FEC seeking a ruling on its own legality and seeking a thumbs down — clearly, to prevent Democrats from being able to use private groups to compete with the GOP’s hard-money juggernauts, including the Republican National Committee, its House and Senate campaign committees and the Bush-Cheney re-election committee.

The FEC, by a 4-2 vote, last week handed down a narrow advisory ruling rather than a broad one, barring 527s that are registered with the FEC from spending soft money to influence federal elections but allowing them to use mixes of hard and soft money on get-out-the-vote activities that affect both federal and nonfederal races. All 527s not registered with the FEC, such as Ickes’ group, are unaffected by the decision.

The commission’s two “no” votes came from Republicans, Dave Mason and Chairman Smith. Smith, who opposed BCRA on free-speech grounds but was widely interpreted as doing so for partisan reasons, scolded his party: “If Republicans think they can win by silencing their opposition, they are wrong,” he said, “and they are going to deserve to lose.” Those who doubted Smith’s motives owe him an apology.