Contentious Foe of Finance Reform
FEC chief Bradley Smith blasted for failing to stop "soft money"
By Bill McConnell -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/23/2004 8:00:00 PM
To many campaign-finance reformers, the biggest obstacle to honest elections in this country is the chairman of the Federal Election Commission.
Bradley Smith, who has drawn fire since joining the FEC in 2000, clashed again with critics last week, accused of shirking his duty to stop illegal fundraising by nonprofit organizations.
|GOP Gets in the Game|
|Republican allies scramble to match soft-money grab|
|Sums raised and spent as of May 16
Source: Center for Responsive Politics
|Club for Growth||$10M||$2.9M|
|College Republican National Committee||$1.1M||$2.3M|
|Republican Leadership Council||$697,203||$718,725|
|Top Democratic "527s"||Raised||Spent|
|America Coming Together||$19M||$9.9M|
The FEC delayed a decision on "soft money" to nonprofits until August, effectively allowing such groups to spend millions of dollars on TV ads in upcoming elections.
The chairman of the Republican Party, Ed Gillespie, called Smith's latest actions "irresponsible." Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the best-known proponent of campaign-finance reform, labeled him "bullying and cowardly."
But Smith, a 45-year-old former law professor, is unapologetic about his opposition to most of the campaign regulations he has sworn to uphold. "The idea that donors' giving money to candidates is corrupting" is misguided, he says. He argues that providing money to support a campaign is an essential element of democracy in the TV age and isn't bribery, as his critics often contend.
Although he vows to support the law, for more than a decade, Smith has dished out scathing law-journal and newspaper op-ed attacks against nearly every restriction on campaign contributions and spending. His blistering reviews, which contrast with his soft-spoken manner, have kept him in hot water with some of the biggest politicos in Washington since the day he was nominated.
On May 13, the FEC decided 4-2 not to act on complaints about "soft money" for at least three months. The postponement kills hope for reform this year, since any possible restrictions wouldn't go into effect until after the November ballot.
That FEC decision sets the stage for unfettered spending and "a total meltdown of federal campaign-finance regulation in 2004," complains Ed Gillespie.
Two years ago, the Supreme Court upheld reforms banning large unlimited donations to political parties in federal campaigns. By then, Democratic supporters had figured out they could divert the unlimited "soft-money" donations to nonprofit groups, dubbed "527s" after the section of the tax code authorizing them. Only recently have Republicans begun to mimic the practice in a big way.
Although campaign reformers say the practice is illegal, 527s are accepted as unrestricted donations as long as decisions are not coordinated with candidates or political parties. Because of such donations, the role of deep-pocketed corporations and individuals is still vast. Total campaign spending in the 2004 election is expected to reach a record-breaking $1.6 billion, most of it going to TV commercials.
McCain is so upset by the FEC's inaction, he wants Smith to resign. "It is his job to carry out, not thwart, the Supreme Court's mandate," McCain said in a recent speech on the Senate floor.
Smith returns fire, labeling his critics disingenuous. He points out that specific proposals to outlaw such donations were eliminated from the original legislation in 2002. He is especially angered by the Republican Party's newfound opposition to 527s. Only after Democrats proved better at exploiting the groups did the GOP declare their fundraising illegal, he says. His take: "If there's a loophole, Congress left it there."
Republicans say current reforms should restrict 527s. Now that they're deemed legal, though, GOP allies are gearing up to fully exploit the loophole that has fueled almost $200 million in donations for Democrat-leaning activists. Financier George Soros, for instance, has donated millions to liberal groups America Coming Together and MoveOn.org.
Republican-friendly groups have raised only a fraction of what Democrat-friendly groups have raised so far. The Club for Growth, the largest of the former, has already declared that it will spend $10 million on ads supporting President Bush. Until now, its biggest effort was running attack ads against liberal Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter in an unsuccessful bid to replace him with a more conservative candidate.
GOP candidates will likely best their rivals in 527 fundraising, though, says Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center, an activist group pushing for tougher campaign-finance restrictions. "The Republicans will get into the 527 business, and they've demonstrated their ability to out-raise the Democrats in soft money."
For Smith, the journey into the campaign-finance-reform maelstrom was largely an accident: "I sort of blundered into it." After he left private practice in 1993 to join the law faculty at Capital University, Columbus, Ohio, his first assignment was to pick a subject for a seminar. Though primarily a labor lawyer, he had recently done side work helping political parties get listed on state election ballots. He thought the subject an obvious choice.
Along the way, Smith won high-powered fans, including Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who eventually pressured the Clinton Administration into nominating him as an FEC commissioner. FEC members elected Smith chairman last fall.
As for leaving his post, Smith says, "It would be sacrificing my honor to step down in response to baseless charges that I don't enforce the law."
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