Friday, August 20, 2004

"We have done something huge." - FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub

Yesterday, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) passed new rules to take effect in 2005 which are aimed at limiting the controversial fundraising by independent political groups. Many of these groups, known as 527s for the section of the tax code under which they were organized, have received massive donations in the millions of dollars from very wealthy donors, in the process circumventing at least the spirit of McCain-Feingold in the eyes of their critics.

The major new regulation would affect the way independent groups solicit donations. If an appeal to donors states that any portion of the funds will be used to support or defeat a candidate, then an individual can't contribute more than $5,000 to that group, the federal limit on giving to political action committees. So, the $5,000 limit kicks in for "Send us money to send Bush back to Crawford" or "Help us spread the word that Kerry is unfit to serve as president". Or it would if the regulations took effect this year, at least.

The FEC ruling also mandated that groups that run ads supporting or opposing a candidate must finance those ads with at least 50% hard money (contributions subject to the $5,000 limit).

It is unclear whether the new regulations would keep out the million-dollar contributions from the wealthy financier crowd or, as FEC Commissioner Scott Thomas believes, would just amount to "tinkering".

What is clear is that regular Americans are locked out of the political process way before the debate ever gets to the question of whether to limit individual donations to independent groups to $5,000. Commissioner Weintraub's assertion that the FEC's actions were huge is unfortunately typical of the kind of thinking which has dominated the discussion about campaign finance reform -- it ignores the extent to which the rights of the vast majority of Americans are traded away and is instead guided by the wealthy interests and entrenched incumbents who control our political process. How many Americans can afford to give $5,000 to one of these groups? How about $2,000 to a candidate? And these are supposed to be victories for the reform movement.

Enough already. For politicians, courts, governmental agencies, and reformers alike: if you want to be serious about democracy in America, can the self-congratulatory talk of "huge" improvements and start working towards reforms that ensure equal political voice for all Americans.

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