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At Last, 527 Reform

Albeit late and by circuitous means, it now appears likely Congress will finally address a problem of its own making: the so-called 527 political committees that politicians of both parties believe had a nefarious influence on the 2004 campaign.

Legislation was introduced earlier this month with a breadth of backers that makes it seem all but certain that 527s will be made to adhere to the hard-money limits imposed on political parties and federal candidates in the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

The list includes, of all people, Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who had been an arch opponent of BCRA, as well as the measure’s chief sponsors, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), plus Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

On the House side, Lott’s counterpart, Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Administration Committee, is not a co-sponsor, but is favorably inclined toward the concept of reining in 527s and is planning hearings on the issue. BCRA’s chief House sponsors, Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), are taking the lead. But Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is believed to be on board. And, to top it all off, so is President Bush.

All we can say about this legislation is: “Of course.” And, “It’s about time.” Just as preventing the parties and federal candidates from raising unlimited amounts of soft money from individuals, corporations and organized labor did not limit free speech in the last campaign, neither will holding 527s to the same rules stifle independent expression. The political parties raised and spent more than they ever did before — in noncorporate, nonunion hard dollars.

What happened in 2004 is that unions and some enormously wealthy Democrats poured their soft money into 527s, then were followed by some corporations and rich Republicans. According to a draft report of the Campaign Finance Institute, fundraising by the groups surged from $151 million in 2002 to $405 million in 2004. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, of the top 10 527s, pro-Democratic groups raised $310 million and pro-GOP groups, $58 million.

Since the early 20th century, the whole idea of campaign finance reform has been to keep corporate (and labor union) money from influencing election outcomes. It should have been obvious when BCRA was written that this money would gravitate to 527s, but the legislation did not specifically address the matter. McCain and other BCRA sponsors are furious with the Federal Election Commission for not reining in 527s in its post-BCRA rulemaking process.

We were disappointed, too, but FEC commissioners have a point when they say — in the words of GOP Commissioner Brad Smith — that “legislation, rather than regulatory fiat, is the proper course for changing the law.”

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