The Federal Election Commission began two days of hearings Wednesday on whether to more tightly regulate independent groups spending money on elections. But several commissioners appeared to want to delay action until this summer, if they act at all.
The longer the FEC debates, the less likely it is to have any meaningful impact in this year’s presidential race.
The commission has proposed sweeping new rules that could in effect stop the Media Fund, MoveOn.org Voter Fund and other so-called 527 groups from spending millions of dollars from wealthy individuals and unions on advertising opposing President Bush.
Leading up to this week’s hearings, the FEC received nearly 200,000 comments in e-mails, letters, phone calls and faxes. Many of the e-mails were generated by organizations with a stake in the outcome.
The commission is scheduled to vote May 13 on the proposed new rules.
“I had no idea we’d have this kind of response,” Commissioner Danny McDonald, a Democrat, said Wednesday. “I simply think the 13th is unrealistic. I’m trying to encourage my colleagues to rethink the calendar.”
FEC Vice Chairman Ellen L. Weintraub, a Democrat, also said she considered the schedule unworkable.
“We are putting the cart way before the horse here,” Weintraub said. “In any rational world, we would read the comments first and draft the rules second.” She also said she opposed changing the rules “in the middle of an election year.”
The six-member bipartisan commission would need four votes to take any action.
Chairman Bradley A. Smith, a Republican, appeared to be leaning toward voting against the proposed rules.
He said he did not think the commission could treat the 527s differently than other nonprofit advocacy groups, which also spend money on elections. That, he said, would be “a setup for regulatory failure.”
Commissioner Scott Thomas, a Democrat, said he believed the FEC had the authority to change the rules and appeared to lean toward some type of reform.
Commissioner Michael E. Toner, a Republican, said he wanted to take action now and would fight to make the proposed rules effective for 2004. But he said he also was willing to vote for rules that would take effect after the November election.
Commissioner David Mason, a Republican, said he had not yet decided how he would vote.
Campaign finance reform laws ban unlimited contributions to political parties from individuals, corporations and unions. But the 527s, named for the tax code that governs them, contend those laws do not apply to them. The proposal before the FEC would impose contribution limits on the 527 groups.
Among those testifying Wednesday were representatives of election watchdog groups who called on the FEC to immediately stop the liberal 527 groups from spending unlimited soft money in the presidential race, and those representing nonprofits, who urged the FEC not to do anything.
“This rule-making was prompted by concerns about the activities of two or three organizations,” Weintraub said. “We are now proposing to regulate thousands.”
Lawyers for the 527s are expected to testify today.
Smith, the FEC chairman, rebuked the Republican National Committee for failing to send anyone to testify at the hearings.
The RNC and the Bush campaign last month filed a complaint with the FEC alleging that the 527s were illegally collecting campaign contributions on behalf of Sen. John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democrat presidential nominee.
“It would have been valuable for the RNC to use this forum to put to rest the accusation that theirs is a strategy of short-term political advantage,” Smith said. “What we are doing here is not a political game.”
The RNC withdrew its request to testify last week after deciding that too many of the witnesses were focusing on 501C organizations, which RNC lawyers called “a cynical diversionary tactic.”