Convention Overhaul Unlikely

Posted April 4, 2003 at 3:20pm

Several Federal Election Commission officials last week indicated that they aren’t likely to make any comprehensive changes to the national party convention financing rules in the near future.

“Unless it’s absolutely essential to make a change, I’m not going to be interested in making a change,” said Scott Thomas, a longtime Democratic FEC commissioner.

In the wake of the new campaign finance law that took effect in November, Thomas and the agency’s five other commissioners last week took up a 162-page draft document laying out potential new fundraising guidelines for the political party conventions.

Among the changes the FEC is considering is whether the campaign finance law prohibits national party officials and federal candidates from helping convention host committees raise soft money for their presidential nominating extravaganzas.

They may also address whether local host committees can still raise funds from corporations and labor unions in the post-McCain-Feingold era as well as weigh in on exactly what sort of expenses local host committees and party committees may cover.

Third-party comments on the proposals are due by May 9, and the FEC has scheduled a hearing on the matter May 19, with the intention of putting out final rules by the end of June.

But Thomas cautioned lawyers in the room and his fellow commissioners that comprehensive changes to the convention funding system may have to wait until the 2008 cycle.

Calling the draft rules a “long and complicated document,” FEC Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub, the newest Democratic addition to the agency, said the FEC “may decide not to deal with all the issues given the time frame.”

However, she assured the audience the main issue of whether soft money could be used in conventions would be addressed.

GOP Commissioner Michael Toner, a Republican appointee, said he personally sees no evidence that Congress intended to prohibit convention host committees from raising and spending soft money as they have in the past to underwrite expenses related to convention infrastructure, transportation services and security.

But Toner is seeking changes in other areas. For instance, he is pushing a proposal to crack down on the trend of leadership PACs paying for travel, polling, staff and other expenses of presidential candidates.

Toner also raised concerns about the timing of the FEC’s action on convention fundraising rules and suggested the agency might have to delay action.

Noting that convention contracts have been signed and planning is already “well under way,” Toner said it would be difficult to change the rules now. However, the FEC might not have any choice but to do that because it may not have the power to postpone the effective date of the law as it applies to the national convention financing until the 2008 national conventions.