The Federal Election Commission's general counsel said yesterday that the agency should delay by 90 days its decision whether to restrict the "soft money" expenditures of groups opposing the reelection of President Bush -- sharply increasing the likelihood that no action would be taken before the November election.
A delay would be a major boost to the presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and a setback for an alliance of campaign watchdogs, the Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee, which are seeking to thwart the activities of pro-Democratic semi-independent political organizations.
Lawrence H. Norton, FEC general counsel, who had been a proponent of tough regulation, wrote that the issue is far too complex to be resolved in a hurried rule-making process. "Even the most conservative approaches raise issues that need to be thought through in a manner that the current schedule makes difficult," he said.
A majority in the six-member commission, which is to take up the issue tomorrow, has already signaled either opposition to the strict regulatory proposals or reluctance to change the rules in the closing months of a national election.
The prospect of delay angered advocates of limitations on soft money.
"We need to be very clear about this: Delaying a decision is making a decision -- namely, that we are not going to issue any regulations for the 2004 elections," declared Michael E. Toner, one of two FEC commissioners seeking to curtail the new form of soft-money spending.
"We are going to see a new 'soft money' arms race for the 2004 election," warned Toner, a Republican. He said that if the commission fails to act, there will be a major effort to set up Republican soft-money groups to counter the generally Democratic organizations now in place.
"This proposal by the general counsel is the worst kind of bureaucratic farce. If it's adopted, it would represent a complete abdication of responsibility," said Fred Wertheimer, head of Democracy 21, part of the alliance seeking to prevent pro-Democratic groups from raising and spending large contributions from unions, corporations and rich people.
In 2002, Congress barred the national political parties from raising and spending soft money -- unregulated contributions that sometimes exceed $1 million.
After the enactment of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation, many Democratic activists were convinced that their party would be fatally wounded going into the 2004 election if it had to do without soft money. These partisans set up "527" organizations, named for a section of the tax code, to raise unlimited contributions and to spend the money on activities that were formerly performed by the parties, including voter mobilization and the running of "issue ads."
By the end of March, seven of these new groups had already raised more than $50 million, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, a Web site that tracks campaign money. The Media Fund, America Coming Together and Moveon.org, the three most prominent, had raised $42.7 million.
The Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee, both far better funded with still-legal "hard money" contributions than their Democratic counterparts, were infuriated by these developments. They joined with such nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog groups as Democracy 21 and the Center for Responsive Politics in pressing the FEC to write strong rules restricting the 527 groups as quickly as possible.
The Bush campaign and RNC have separately filed with the FEC formal complaints against the Kerry campaign and the pro-Democratic 527 groups. "Senator Kerry, who supported [McCain-Feingold], is now the beneficiary of the single largest conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws in history," declared Jill Holtzman Vogel, RNC chief counsel.
One of the leading opponents of the regulatory proposals, FEC Chairman Bradley A. Smith, a Republican, said yesterday that he has not been "convinced that there is any gain" in regulation, and that to limit the activities of the 527 groups "will just shift the activities" to groups known as "501c4s" for another section of the tax code.
FEC Vice Chairman Ellen L. Weintraub, a Democrat, has voiced similar concerns and has adamantly criticized efforts to change election practices in the middle of the 2004 contest.
Toner has prepared two fallback proposals for tomorrow's FEC meeting. One would set a Jan. 1, 2005, effective date for the regulations he and Democratic Commissioner Scott E. Thomas will sponsor. The other would be a more limited regulation, requiring that the 527 groups use smaller, FEC-regulated "hard money" contributions to pay for at least half of their activities.
Four votes are required for passage of any proposal. Two possible swing votes are Republican David M. Mason and Democrat Danny L. McDonald, although both have voiced strong reservations about the kind of proposals Toner and Thomas are seeking.