Campaign Finance to Return to Agenda in 109th

Posted November 17, 2004 at 12:55pm

As they turn an eye toward 2006, Members of Congress are promising to take a hard look at unfinished business in campaign finance legislation as well as lingering concerns about the nation’s voting process.

House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) will examine both topics when Members reconvene next year, an aide said.

Ney — a lead sponsor of the Help America Vote Act, which implemented a number of new voting initiatives and provided funding for states to upgrade their equipment at polling places — is planning to hold hearings to assess how well the election process went this year. He may summon secretaries of state to discuss such topics as provisional balloting and the drive to establish statewide voter-registration databases.

The Ohio Republican also intends to delve into the controversy surrounding 527 groups, tax-exempt political organizations that dumped more than $300 million of unregulated money into the 2004 elections, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.

Efforts to crack down on 527 groups and revamp the Federal Election Commission top the wish lists of key reformers such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a co-sponsor of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which outlawed soft-money contributions to the national political parties.

McCain and his supporters blame the FEC for creating the 527 loophole that effectively injected soft money back into the system.

“This new problem is not because of any deficiencies in McCain-Feingold,” McCain asserted last week in a USA Today Op-Ed piece. “The loophole for 527 groups was created solely by the Federal Election Commission.”

McCain — along with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) — will continue to push legislation to require 527s to register as federal political committees and to replace the FEC with a new enforcement agency.

The 527 issue — which received national attention during the 2004 elections due to the high-profile activities of groups such as the pro-GOP Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and anti-Bush groups such as the Media Fund — has also grabbed the attention of everyone from Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to presidential adviser Karl Rove.

In a conversation with reporters last week, Rove condemned the tax-exempt groups, declaring that they are “not healthy for democracy” and that the system would be “better off” without them. His remarks echoed similar concerns voiced earlier by President Bush.

Lott, who held preliminary hearings on the problem earlier this year, is well placed to help move legislation through his chamber from his perch as chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee.

But lawmakers appear split over how best to tackle the 527 problem.

While McCain and his supporters fault the watchdog agency for failing to rein in what they consider rogue groups, Ney believes the problem stems from flaws in BCRA, said an aide to the Ohio Republican.

Some campaign finance experts are wondering whether efforts to regulate 527s could run into constitutional roadblocks.

“The president and Senator McCain are both making noises about regulating these 527s, but I think there are serious Constitutional questions as to whether Congress can limit contributions” to 527s, said Rick Hasen, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who specializes in campaign finance issues.

“I think ultimately, if these groups are regulated — if contributions to these groups are regulated — it’s probably going to be an issue that the Supreme Court takes up,” Hasen said.

Champions of the McCain approach stress that the legislative route will be just one part of a broader effort they will pursue next Congress.

Fred Wertheimer, the president of the pro-campaign finance-reform group Democracy 21, said that in addition to legislation, he and his allies will continue to seek remedies in the federal court system and push for appointments of different sorts of commissioners at the FEC.

The terms of two sitting members of the FEC, Democrat Scott Thomas and Republican David Mason, have already expired, and the terms of two other current commissioners, Republican Brad Smith and Democrat Danny McDonald, will be up in April 2005.

Months ago, Democrats announced their intent to appoint labor lawyer Robert Lenhard to replace Thomas. That decision angered some campaign finance reformers who consider Thomas to be their most dependable vote on the commission.

Mason, for his part, is eligible for reappointment, but Republicans have not publicly announced their intentions for his seat.

Smith and McDonald are term-limited and may not be reappointed.

Wertheimer said the openings create an opportunity to “change the culture of the Federal Election Commission by getting commissioners who see as their job carrying out the intent of Congress and properly enforcing the law. We see a real opportunity here for major breakthroughs.”

Election reform topics could prove to be just as sticky an issue in the 109th Congress.

Last week, half a dozen House Democrats asked Comptroller General David Walker to “immediately undertake an investigation of the efficacy of voting machines and new technologies used in the 2004 election, how election officials responded to difficulties they encountered and what we can do in the future to improve our election systems and administration.”

In their letter, Reps. John Conyers (Mich.), Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), Robert Wexler (Fla.), Bobby Scott (Va.), Mel Watt (N.C.) and Rush Holt (N.J.) detailed alleged computer problems in Nebraska, North Carolina and Florida and asked Walker and the General Accounting Office to evaluate a sampling of 30,000 complaints noted on the Web site voteprotect.org.

Election experts fully expect to see continued debate over voter-verified paper ballot trails for electronic voting machines — an idea championed by Holt, but rejected by some in the disabilities community who contend that such requirements would undermine opportunities for independent voting made possible by HAVA.

An Election Day poll conducted by Lombardo Consulting Group in conjunction with Ohio University professor Michael John Burton showed that 81 percent of 362 Las Vegas voters polled said they were in favor of receiving an “ATM style” receipt to show they had cast their vote correctly.

When given a choice between leaving a voter-verified paper ballot at the polling place versus taking home a private voter-verified receipt, 60 percent preferred the idea of take-home receipts to leaving a paper ballot with election officials.

Hasen, meanwhile, suggested that Congress consider establishing a national voter registration and ID system run by the federal government as a solution to concerns about voter fraud and disenfranchisements.

“Easing registration requirements would please Democrats and having voter identification [requirements] could please Republicans,” Hasen said. He theorized that such changes could potentially “eliminate half of the kind of litigation that we saw” in 2004.