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House Election Reform Agenda Is Slim

Despite the fact that several campaign finance bills were introduced recently, House Democratic leaders do not appear to be preparing to embrace an aggressive agenda for election reform this year.

Democrats have no immediate plans to look beyond the reliability of electronic voting machines and how lobbyists disclose their bundled campaign contributions, a House leadership aide said, likely dimming the prospects that 527 overhauls and other major campaign finance changes can be in place before the next election cycle.

Although House Democrats have yet to devise a timeline for acting, the Democratic Caucus likely will resolve these two matters first before considering other proposals for election reform. But with the presidential campaign season heading toward full churn and primaries less than one year away, some election experts and good government groups are claiming that short of Congress taking immediate action, it is doubtful changes could be on the books before the next midterm elections in 2010.

“It’ll be much harder to pass any legislation that changes how you fund presidential races now the 2008 presidential campaigns have begun,” said Robert Lenhard, the Democratic-appointed Federal Election Commission chairman.

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, said he did not believe that the train already has left the station on legislative campaign finance fixes this Congress. Still, Wertheimer and other reformers said changes certainly would have to be in place by the end of this year before the presidential primaries season begin next January.

“Our goal is to see 527 reform legislation passed in 2007,” Wertheimer said.

Lawmakers in both chambers have offered up more than a half-dozen changes to campaign finance law in recent weeks, ranging from legislation sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to dissolve the FEC, to bills intending to crack down on 527s and robocalls, to legislation that would update the public financing system for presidential candidates starting in 2012.

Even though some experts question how effective the 527s were in helping the Democrats gain control of Congress in November, Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) last week suggested that because 527s still spark deep divisions among party leaders, House Democrats would be reluctant to address any kind of reform measures this year. Short of leadership resolving its reservations, Meehan said a 527 reform measure, which passed the House by 24 votes in the previous Congress, could have a chance.

“We’re trying to get a consensus on [527s], so it’s no longer controversial,” Meehan said. “If the Democratic leadership decided to embrace it, we could probably pass it alone.”

Reform advocates balk at the idea that time is fast expiring. The Campaign Legal Center’s Paul Ryan said that “for those who do not support reforms, the time is never right.”

So with little indication that legislative fixes are on the horizons, some 527s are keeping little more than a watchful eye on developments.

“We’re paying attention to it,” said an executive at one 527 group.

“There’s always talk about reform and changing the rules,” the executive added. “But since those rules don’t exist we haven’t spent much time [considering] hypotheticals.”

With the chances dwindling that Congress will impose new restrictions on the outside groups anytime soon, the matter continues to work its way through the courts. Last week, the FEC provided its explanation to a Washington, D.C., circuit court judge as to why the agency should continue to police 527s on a case-by-case basis.

But regardless of how the courts or Congress moves, there are some concerns within the 527 community that the combination of the groups’ relatively lackluster financial performance last year in the midterms and the pejorative connotations that they have acquired during the past half-decade could marginalize the 527s.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) “was right when he made the point about [527] donors not participating in 2006. A lot of the people who funded 527s in 2004 chose not to participate in such a big way in 2006,” the 527 executive said. “A major reason was because it was not a presidential year and another was lot of the donors felt very burned — they felt that there was no accountability with regards to their contributions.”

“And some of them were worried — a minority,” the executive added. “The donors last year said, ‘Hey, they’re shady, and what if they do get regulated and my name gets out there?’”

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