Jewish World Review March 27, 2002 / 14 Nissan, 5762

Jules Witcover

Jules Witcover
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Consumer Reports

Targeting the Federal Election Commission | Not satisfied with enactment of the strongest campaign finance reform since the Watergate years, reformers are about to launch another drive to put backbone in the election enforcement agency that for years has been a pushover for errant candidates and influence-buyers.

The idea is to abolish the Federal Election Commission, stalemated by partisanship, and create a new agency led by a strong-minded independent director with the muscle to achieve real compliance with the new law.

The proposal is being crafted now by a task force under the aegis of Democracy 21, a pro-reform think tank headed by Fred Wertheimer, a leader in the recently successful drive to curb the flow of unregulated "soft" money into federal elections.

The congressional architects of the ban, Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold and Reps. Chris Shays and Marty Meehan, are expected to join the effort to get ride of what Wertheimer calls a "failed agency." But stiff opposition from many of the same foes of the soft-money ban is poised to save it.

The FEC has been frozen in stalemate almost since its inception in 1974 by its mandatory composition of three Republicans and three Democrats, recommended by the congressional leaders in each party. In practice, Wertheimer charges, their votes and actions are governed by their politics and ideology and as a result are reduced to ineffectiveness.

What the election policing agency needs, he says, is an administrator with the professionalism and reputation for independence comparable to that of recent heads of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the General Accounting Office and the Federal Reserve Board who will "take enforcement out of the political system."

But the leading Republican expert on campaign law, Jan Baran, ridicules the idea, asking: "Do we need another J. Edgar Hoover to supervise our campaigns? To give that much power to one person is dangerous."

Baran also questions the willingness of members of Congress of both parties to create a czar to oversee campaign money laws that are so critical to their own elections. "It's hard for me to envision," he says, "but even Congress has its momentary lapses of judgment."

Wertheimer acknowledges the difficulty of persuading Congress to make the change, but notes that banning soft money also was once considered an impossible task and finally was achieved. Baran counters that "it's one thing to vote for reform and double the money coming to you" - a reference to the new law's raising regulated "hard" money form $1,000 a contributor to $2,000 - and another for members of Congress to "create a rogue agency not in their control. When," he asks, "has Congress relinquished that kind of control over anything?"

The reformers, however, argue that it makes little sense to strengthen the law to combat special-interest influence and corruption in federal campaigns and then leave the toothless, hopelessly splintered enforcement agency in place.

Their complaint, one of long standing, has taken on greater urgency and volume with the presence on the FEC of two admitted foes of campaign finance laws. Commissioners Bradley Smith and David Mason have been outspoken in their opposition to any regulation of the flow of campaign money, even as Congress was considering the latest reforms.

One concern is how the FEC as constituted will deal with the inevitable schemes for getting around the new law. One obvious dodge is the creation and increased funding of more so-called independent expenditure groups, which may spend all they want for a candidate provided they act entirely on their own, with no collusion whatever with him or his campaign.

The reformers fear that the evenly split commission will fail to keep these groups honest, thus opening the floodgates to the unregulated, unlimited soft money the new law is intended to close. They hope their recent legislative success has created a new climate of concern and awareness among voters who will demand effective enforcement.

But it's just as likely that the good lawmakers, having finally passed a modest reform for the first time in more than 25 years, will feel they've done enough to peddle themselves to voters as do-gooders, and need to do no more.

Comment on JWR contributor Jules Witcover's column by clicking here.

03/25/02: Campaign finance reform irony
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03/18/02: Political junkies convention
03/15/02: Gore re-enters the arena
03/13/02: Reconsidering presidential succession
03/11/02: Murmurs of a war protest
03/04/02: Dems question expanding, paying for the war
03/01/02: More questions about historians' credibility
02/28/02: Early warning on bio-terrorism
02/25/02: Bush rhetoric, at home and abroad
02/22/02: Strategic influence or strategic deception?
02/20/02: Challenging Gore for 2004
02/19/02: Just a beginning on campaign finance reform'
02/13/02: Taking 'the Fifth'
02/11/02: Campaign finance reform showdown
02/08/02: Dems need a Truman
02/06/02: The Bush budget: Reality replaces poetry
02/04/02: Going after the Axis of Evil --- or not
02/01/02: Bush keeps Dems on ropes
01/30/02: White House task force secrecy
01/25/02: A politically poisonous congressional session
01/23/02: Whither AlGore?
01/21/02: In search of Tom Ridge
01/18/02: Kennedy takes on the tax fight
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12/07/01: September 11th and December 7th
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11/30/01: Stall on campaign finance reform
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11/26/01: Ashcroft still under fire
11/21/01: Normalcy vs. security at the White House
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10/26/01: No political business as usual
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10/15/01: New York: Making a comeback
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09/24/01: Using a tragedy for a federal bailout
09/21/01: A view of tragedy at home from abroad
09/14/01: Script for AlGore's coming-out party
08/31/01: Scandal and privacy in politics
08/24/01: On replacing Helms
08/22/01: Politics takes a summer holiday
08/15/01: The resurfacing of AlGore
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07/09/01: Listening to, and watching, Ashcroft
07/06/01: New comedian in the House (of Representatives)
06/27/01: Spinning Campaign Finance Reform's latest 'headway'
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06/22/01: The push on patients' rights
06/20/01: If you can't trust historians, how can you trust history?
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06/04/01: Memo to the Bush daughters
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05/23/01: Lauding the Nixon pardon
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05/16/01: The level of public sensibility these days
05/14/01: "I am Al Gore. I used to be the next president of the United States"

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