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FEC Approves New Soft Money Spending for Two Groups

The Federal Election Commission on Thursday greenlighted two opinions that illustrate how drastically campaign finance rules have changed after recent court decisions.

Less than three years ago, the FEC slapped the Club for Growth with a $350,000 penalty for spending millions in unrestricted soft money on ads during the 2004 elections. But at an open meeting Thursday, commissioners overwhelmingly approved a request that would essentially allow the conservative anti-tax organization to do the same thing in 2010.

In a 5-to-1 vote, the FEC approved the Club for Growth’s plan to create a political committee designed to collect unlimited individual donations that it would spend on commercials for and against federal candidates. The commissioners also approved by a 5-to-1 vote a similar request by Commonsense Ten, a Democratic group.

The decisions will allow the groups to raise unlimited money from individuals, corporations and unions to spend on independent expenditures in the midterm elections. The groups will be required to report their fundraising and spending to the FEC just like all other candidates, parties and political action committees.

The opinions may provide some of the only guidance from the campaign finance governing body going into the elections.

Before the votes, some commissioners took issue with recent media reports that indicated the two opinions would lead to less disclosure.

“There’s chatter out there that they’re saying there is not going to be disclosure,” Republican Commissioner Donald McGahn said. “Anybody that comes away from here saying that this is going to undercut disclosure is just not reading what is going on.”

Democratic Commissioner Steven Walther voted against both the Club for Growth and Commonsense Ten opinions and issued a statement saying the “landscape of federal campaign finance regulation has undergone a paradigmatic shift” as the result of several recent court decisions that loosened the regulations on independent expenditures that groups make on behalf of federal candidates.

The largest was the Supreme Court’s January verdict in Citizens United v. FEC that allows corporations, nonprofits and labor unions to use their own treasuries to fund political advertisements and influence federal elections.

“In my view, it is better practice for the Commission to address the consequences of these fundamental changes in a rulemaking proceeding than piecemeal through the advisory opinion process,” he said. “These issues are better addressed in a plenary fashion, taking into account the full breadth of the shifted landscape.”

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