Capital Watch


GOP Fiddles With Campaign Financing

Regulators may strip a few cars from the election-year gravy train now padding TV stations' ad budgets. And Democrats are the big losers. A GOP-generated bid to rein in the nonprofit interest groups filling Democrats' coffers got an endorsement from the Federal Election Commission last week. By a 4-2 vote, the FEC said issue-advocacy groups cannot use unlimited amounts of unregulated "soft money" to pay for ads mentioning federal candidates. The groups, however, can use a mix of hard and soft money for ads that endorse or attack people running for office.

A compromise written by FEC Vice Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub binds the groups to the limits on soft money imposed by the 2002 campaign-finance-reform law but only for ads that "promote, support, attack, or oppose" federal candidates.

The decision covers the so-called "527" groups, named for the section of the tax code governing their operation. Democrats have relied heavily on 527s to replace the direct and unlimited soft-money donations that once made up the bulk of their fundraising. Last week's vote is considered informal guidance, but the FEC will set permanent rules for 527s in March.

FEC Chairman Brad Smith said he was "disappointed" his party backed the new restrictions, engineered by another Republican on the FEC to gain the upper hand in this year's elections. "If they think they're going to win by silencing opponents, they deserve to lose," he says. A great irony of campaign reform has been the financial hit suffered by Democrats-the party most in favor of the law.

Energizer Barton

Rep. Joe Barton formally takes the reins of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Wednesday, when he is scheduled to win the endorsement of House Republicans. Later that day, a full House votes to make his new position official.

The Texas Republican hasn't waited to get started and has been running the committee as de facto chairman for the past week. He takes over from Billy Tauzin, who officially stepped down Feb. 16 to become top lobbyist for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association.

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

They don't have a prayer of succeeding, but Hispanic activists are urging the FCC to throw out its January approval of the News Corp./DirecTV merger. The National Hispanic Media Coalition claims that, because the FCC has no rules governing mergers between content distributors and programmers, the approval was arbitrary.

The NHMC says an FCC administrative judge should have conducted a lengthy review of the merger.

Will Indecency Bill Get Stripped?

The House Commerce Committee plans to pass Rep. Fred Upton's anti-indecency bill on March 2, after a hearing this Thursday. Upton predicts certain passage by the committee. The trick is to keep enthusiastic colleagues from loading the bill with additional media restrictions, which would torpedo the legislation when the full House votes. Right now, the bill simply increases FCC fines for broadcast-indecency violations. Word on Capitol Hill is that other lawmakers want to strengthen FCC power to revoke licenses, limit violent programs, and make it easier for affiliates to reject network programs. "It could die of its own weight," says one Hill source. Upton persuaded colleagues to withdraw extra amendments when his Telecommunications Subcommittee approved the bill two weeks ago. But he must allow them to be considered during the Commerce Committee vote. A case of the House doth protest too much?