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The FEC and Soft Money

Tuesday, February 17, 1998; Page A14

WITH CONGRESS unlikely to pass a campaign finance reform bill any time soon, the Federal Election Commission is quietly considering its own move to get so-called soft money under control. The commission on Thursday considered a remarkable proposal by FEC General Counsel Lawrence Noble that would, if adopted, effectively ban the national party committees from raising soft money, those uncapped funds that the parties are purportedly not using to influence federal elections. Mr. Noble's proposal, made in response to petitions by President Clinton and five members of Congress, is a significant development both because it provides a cogent analysis of the development of the soft money loophole and because it raises the legal question of whether the FEC can tackle the problem even without congressional action.

The bad news is that the chances of the commission's adopting such a proposal are quite slim. One might hope that the commissioners simply would adopt the staff plan as their own, solicit comments on it and hold a hearing to determine if it should be put into effect. The Republican commissioners who probably will get to vote on the proposal do not seem likely to support implementing it. The commission's two current Republicans requested at the Thursday meeting that Mr. Noble include other alternatives as well, and the amended plan -- options and all -- could be put out for comments relatively soon. But with Republican skepticism of the commission's jurisdiction to restrict soft money, it is as difficult to imagine the Noble plan getting beyond the comment stage as it is to imagine the reform bills passing both houses of Congress. The Republican skepticism could, of course, be correct. It is unclear that the commission has the authority to ban soft money. Many campaign finance experts, in fact, have long believed that because the FEC's jurisdiction only covers federal elections, it cannot touch soft money, which is -- by definition -- not federal.

But there is another view as well; advocates of campaign finance reform take the position that when soft money is used to influence federal elections, as it routinely is, it should not be beyond the FEC's reach simply because it sits in accounts that are fictionally dedicated to state and local races. The real significance of the Noble proposal may be simply that, for the first time, the FEC's top lawyer has endorsed this reading of the law. By doing so, he appears also to have endorsed the chief complaint that reformers have made about the way soft dollars function in the campaign finance system.

"By allowing national party committees to pay a portion of their mixed activities costs with soft dollars, the [FEC's] rules appear to be allowing the national party committees to use large soft money contributions in ways that unavoidably influence federal elections," the proposal states. Even if Mr. Noble's proposal never sees the light of day, this finding -- and the bold administrative remedy the FEC staff has suggested -- ought to resonate deeply in the debate over campaign finance reform.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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