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FEC Mulls State, Local Event Rules

Aside from a high-profile review of Internet activities, the Federal Election Commission is also taking a hard look at its rules governing appearances of federal officeholders and candidates at state, district and local party fundraising events — a reassessment that has alarmed some key political players.

The effort stems from judicial rulings on the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, the landmark law that extended a ban on soft-money fundraising to all federal candidates and the national party committees.

In its implementation of BCRA, the FEC approved an exemption to allow federal officeholders and politicians to speak at state, district and local party events “without restriction or regulation.”

But when a slew of rules were challenged in court by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled that the FEC had not provided an adequate explanation of its decision on candidate solicitation.

Kollar-Kotelly concluded that provision was “ambiguous” and that the statute “can be read to either be a carve-out for unabashed solicitation by federal candidates and officeholders at state, district or local committee fundraising events, or to simply make clear that merely attending, speaking or being the featured guest at such an event is not to be construed as constituting solicitation, per se.”

Because of this ruling, the FEC is revisiting its exemption. Though the FEC’s exact intentions reman unclear, political groups are already gearing up for a fight.

In a March 28 letter to the commission, lawyers for the Republican National Committee argued that one possible proposal the FEC recently put forth “would likely have a chilling effect” on candidates’ and officeholders’ “willingness to participate in such grassroots events, which of course would negatively impact state, district and local party organizations by placing a barrier between those organizations and their elected leaders and candidates.”

On the other hand, Congressional sponsors of BCRA see the FEC’s deliberations as an opportunity to restore the intent of how they envisioned their law.

“In the original soft money rulemaking, the Commission consistently acted to allow, if not flat out encourage, the raising and use of soft money in ways not contemplated or permitted by BCRA,” Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Reps. Shays and Meehan wrote in comments submitted on March 28.

“The current rule, which allows virtually unlimited solicitation by Federal officeholders and candidates at State, district and local party and fundraising events, is an excellent example,” the lawmakers explained.

They are urging the FEC to adopt a stricter alternative that “would bar Federal officeholders and candidates from soliciting any non-Federal funds … when speaking at party fundraising events.”

The FEC is also considering keeping its original, broad exemption and merely providing an explanation for its decision, as required by the Administrative Procedure Act.

A wide array of commentators from both parties who have weighed in on the debate worry that a more restrictive interpretation of the law could harm the political process.

Mark Brewer, president of the Association of State Democratic Chairs, said that a looser rule “reflects the practical realities of these events.”

“As a featured speaker, an officeholder is expected to thank the attendees for their past and continued support of the party,” Brewer noted. “Without the current exemption, this common courtesy might well be treated as a violation” of the ban on soft money.

Michael Bassett, the chairman of the Ottawa County Democratic Central Committee in Ohio, urged the FEC not to adopt a “speak but don’t solicit” rule that would require candidates to “tease out” appropriate words from inappropriate ones.

Bassett said he fears that chaos might ensue if the FEC adopts a “middle ground” whereby federal officeholders could attend fundraisers but not use words that could be deemed a solicitation for money.

“This would, first and foremost, open up a whole new battleground in politics, as every statement made by a Congressman at his party’s Jefferson/Jackson Day (or Lincoln Day) dinner will be scrutinized to see if it complies with requirements.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee also supports leaving the current regulation intact, according to the party’s counsel, William McGinley.

“Federal officeholders and candidates should be permitted to remain active supporters of their state and local party committees,” McGinley wrote.

Likewise, Jan Baran and Caleb Burns, GOP election lawyers representing Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), urged the commissioners to keep their regulation in accordance with an advisory opinion issued to Cantor in 2003.

That opinion stated that BCRA “does not forbid a covered person from making any solicitation of funds in connection with a non-federal election,” though it stipulated that they “may not solicit funds” that are outside the amount and source limits imposed by the act.

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