Say No to Online Soft-Money Loophole

Posted October 28, 2005 at 2:53pm

Almost everyone agrees that the Internet has been a tremendous force for good in American politics. So why would an unholy alliance of the government and campaign-finance reformers trying to stamp out online political activity beneath their jackbooted heels, as many claim is now occurring?

In less than half a decade, the Web has given citizens an invaluable organizing tool, enabling us to rally around a cause without regard to our physical location. For candidates, it’s a new, low-cost way of reaching potential voters in every corner of the country. And it has proved to be a powerful fundraising engine, bringing millions of new hard-money contributors into politics.

Interestingly, each of those traits also directly serves the underlying premise of campaign finance reform: that electoral and policy decisions should be made by real citizens participating fully in the democratic process, rather than being purchased by the powerful and the wealthy.

Given the near-universal agreement, it’s worth asking why so many insidious forces appear to be working so hard to impose harsh new regulations cracking down on Internet political activity.

The answer, of course, is that they aren’t.

Not a single person I know of is interested in limiting online political discourse by Web loggers or other individual citizens. But an amalgam of the usual reform opponents — corporations, unions, party operatives and lawyers — is once again using scare tactics to claim that the government is out to squash political speech on the Internet. You may remember these scaremongers as the same personalities who insisted that the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act soft-money ban was unconstitutional (the Supreme Court upheld it) and would surely destroy the political parties (they thrived).

These reform opponents presumably believe it would serve their interests if the Internet became an outlet for the same soft money that virtually drowned out the modest contributions of average citizens in the 1980s and 1990s, and that Congress banned in 2002. So they are trying to argue that a movement is afoot to “regulate grass-roots activity” in order to stop any regulation of the way state parties, corporations and unions finance federal political activities that take place online. If they are successful, they will have opened an Internet loophole through which soft money can once again flow freely.

One of the great advantages of the Internet is that it provides an extremely low-cost way of participating in politics. But it’s also true that an enormous amount of money can be spent there, primarily in the form of political advertising. Our country has an almost century-long commitment, reaffirmed when the Supreme Court upheld BCRA, that federal political activity should be funded only by relatively small, limited contributions by individuals. When corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals make unlimited contributions, those checks are almost always about buying influence, which creates real and perceived corruption in our politics. That’s equally true whether the money is spent on- or off-line.

Unfortunately, some in Congress have been persuaded to ignore that important fact. The House Administration Committee recently reported H.R. 1316, the Pence-Wynn bill, after attaching a provision that would completely exempt the Internet from campaign finance laws, including those prohibiting the use of unlimited soft-money donations for “public communications.” This blanket exemption would allow federal candidates to coordinate with big donors to spend unlimited amounts of soft money to buy banner and video ads supporting their campaigns or attacking their opponents. It would also allow state political parties to spend unlimited amounts of unregulated contributions to finance ad campaigns on the Internet that support or oppose federal candidates.

Of course, all of those activities would be illegal if undertaken offline. And they have absolutely nothing to do with individual grass-roots activities.

In fact, the campaign-finance laws should not, and do not, apply to individuals engaged in grass-roots advocacy, including bloggers and online journalists. The FEC is now considering proposed rules that would affirm that principle. Under those rules, individual bloggers communicating on their Web sites would be exempt from the normal campaign-finance rules governing political contributions and expenditures. And legitimate online news sources should, and will, be subject to the “press exemption” that relieves media organizations and activities from campaign finance laws, too.

Put simply, the Internet works, for citizen activists, for officeholders, for candidates, and for those who care about campaign finance reform. The only serious threat to the new medium is the very real possibility that it will be perverted by Congress into yet another playground for special interest soft money, at the voters’ great expense.

Trevor Potter is a former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Election Commission. He is president of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan campaign finance reform group.