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FEC Chairman Isn't Sure Regulation Good for Campaign
Article about Panel Discussion entitled Money & Politics 2004: New Rules, New Practices
REPRINTED, WITH PERMISSION, FROM THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
The chairman of the Federal Election Commission yesterday questioned restrictions on third-party groups in the presidential campaign and disparities in regulations on corporations.
Bradley A. Smith, a former Capital University law professor, was joined in a panel discussion by two election-law experts from Ohio State University in a forum at OSU's Moritz College of Law.
The election commission has come under fire recently for not being aggressive enough in enforcing the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law and for failing to rein in "527'' groups, whose contributions are not restricted like those of political action committees.
Smith argued that 527 groups, named for a section of the federal tax code, "have different rules because they serve a different purpose in the game.''
If there is interaction between such third-party groups and candidates, Smith said, it's already illegal.
"It seems to me the more participants in the process, the stronger our democracy becomes.''
When individual contributors are limited, he said, they give to parties, and more recently to outside groups.
"They could buy up television stations. . . . At each stage, fewer people are left to play the game. Those left tend to be the wealthiest and most powerful and best established among us,'' Smith said. "We need to start thinking hard about what we are trying to accomplish with these limits.''
Smith pointed out that for nearly a century corporate contributions have been regulated.
"We may be on course to do unprecedented damage to free speech, including freedom of the press,'' he said of increased regulation.
Smith said corporations, despite contribution limits, retain influence through lobbying, contributions to charities, participation in ballot initiatives and campaign donations by their executives and employees.
Movies and books produced and distributed by corporations, such as Fahrenheit 9/11 and Unfit for Command, also can influence elections, he said, but their finances are unregulated.
But Assistant Professor Donald Tobin said many rules are in place to guard against corruption and that if a 527 acts like a political-action committee, it should be regulated like one.
"We can't forget how we got here,'' Tobin said, reminding the audience about secret money used to finance President Nixon's re-election in 1972.
Tobin said that when President Bush or Sen. John Kerry stand up, "These guys do care about their reputations.'' He doesn't think the same can be said of the people behind third-party ads.
"I think there's a higher level of untruthfulness with 527s,'' Tobin said.
Law Professor Edward B. "Ned'' Foley said campaign regulations don't restrict the airing of third-party ads because groups are never punished for violations until after the fact.
Smith said he could not comment on pending complaints against the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, among others, but concluded, "The big failure is in the press itself, in how the press covers campaigns.''
He later elaborated that the "press devotes far too much attention to horse races, amounts raised and a great deal on analyzing polls.'' Television, especially, makes excessive use of pundits and campaign spokesmen in dissecting developments instead of issues, he said.
Yesterday's was the first in a series of seminars on election law sponsored by law school.
For more information, go to www.moritzlaw.osu.edu/electionlaw/.