Judge Rules Parties Can't Fund Issue Ads Entirely With 'Soft Money'
By Ruth Marcus
In a ruling dated Thursday, Senior U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant refused to suspend Federal Election Commission regulations that require political parties to finance their issue ads with a mixture of "soft" and "hard" money donations collected in limited amounts from individuals and political action committees.
The Republican National Committee and the Ohio Democratic party have filed suit challenging the regulations and had asked Bryant to enjoin them from being enforced, arguing they represented an unconstitutional restriction on the parties' ability to communicate and unfairly imposed greater restrictions on political parties than on outside interest groups. The Democratic National Committee said it did not support the lawsuit.
But Bryant said in his six-page ruling that RNC and a state Democratic party were not likely to succeed in the case and that "it is the public who would be harmed" if the FEC were enjoined from enforcing the rules.
"If the public were to conceive that each Congressperson elected in the 1998 elections were improperly influenced by large donations to their political parties which were later funneled into issue advertisements with a clear electioneering message, public confidence in our system of government is likely to be further eroded," he wrote.
Bryant's refusal to grant a preliminary injunction unless it is overturned on appeal means the current rules are likely to remain in place through the 1998 elections, and suggests he is not disposed to strike down the regulations.
"This is an important first victory for our side," said Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, which joined with Common Cause and a legal group that advocates changing the campaign finance laws to support the rules. "This case is an effort to get the soft money ban declared unconstitutional before it's even enacted," he said.
"The RNC will continue to aggressively protect its constitutional right to engage in issue advocacy," RNC spokesman Sean Tuffnell said. "We are confident we will ultimately win this case." Ohio Democratic Chairman David J. Leland, said the ruling was "clearly wrong. . . . The question is whether parties will have a say in the issues affecting Americans or only the special-interest groups will."
The phenomenon of "issue advocacy" advertising burst onto the election scene during the 1996 campaign. Both parties along with outside groups such as labor unions spent millions of dollars on advertising that did not explicitly call for the election or defeat of particular candidates but that in many cases identified candidates by name, attacked or defended their records and otherwise looked like standard political commercials.
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