FEC to Examine Rules for Mailing Lists

Posted August 29, 2003 at 5:22pm

One of the hottest commodities in the political marketplace — the mailing lists of political committees — has caught the eye of the Federal Election Commission, which is looking to spell out more specific rules to govern the wheeling and dealing of these valuable assets.

Last Thursday, officials at the watchdog agency adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking, asking for comments on potential new rules covering the sale, rental and exchange of the lists. The FEC is accepting comments until Sept. 25 and will hold a public hearing on the matter at 9:30 a.m. Oct. 1.

Republican FEC Commissioner Michael Toner called the current regulations “very vague” and said the rulemaking is “long overdue.”

While the values of such mailing lists vary greatly, the sale or rental of the lists is clearly a lucrative venture in the political arena.

In 2001, FEC records show that the Republican National Committee paid Friends of Giuliani $7,500 for use of its mailing list, whereas Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) campaign paid the Neumann for Senate campaign $2,234 for use of its mailing list.

In addition to padding campaign coffers, some candidates have fattened their own pocketbooks by renting out their donor lists.

Following his failed re-election campaign in 2000, former House impeachment manager and Rep. James Rogan (R-Calif.) disclosed in his financial disclosure statement that he had received between $15,000 and $50,000 in personal income from the rental of his list of campaign donors.

Senator-turned-Attorney General John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) ignited a firestorm of controversy when his 2000 Senate campaign made $116,000 renting out the fundraising list of his separate leadership political action committee, the Spirit of America PAC. According to The Washington Post, which first reported the arrangement, the PAC had developed the list at a cost of more than $2 million, and a court battle is still being waged by an alliance of public interest groups that allege the FEC erred in not taking action against Ashcroft in the matter.

Such issues have given rise to several advisory opinions, audits and enforcement matters. It is against that backdrop that the FEC said last week it hopes to either “adopt formally its historical approach to these issues or to modify those approaches as appropriate and provide candidates and political committees with more comprehensive guidance on commercial transactions involving mailing lists.”

The draft proposal of regulations issued by the FEC would establish that political committees may rent a mailing list to anyone without it being considered a contribution if the mailing list is rented at the usual and normal charge in a bona fide arm’s-length transaction with commercially reasonable terms.

Moreover, the proposal would allow the sale of such mailing lists to anyone without it being considered a contribution if it meets the above-mentioned criteria with regard to usual and normal charge and a bona fide arm’s-length transaction.

The FEC’s draft proposal also addresses the exchange of mailing lists between political committees in a similar manner, but would prohibit the conversion of a committee’s mailing list to personal use.