Can Somebody Tell Us What Happened?

Maybe you had to be there yesterday when the Federal Election Commission issued its advisory opinion on soft money. We weren’t, and hoped we’d find some clear explanations today from those in the media who were.

No such luck.

As The Washington Post’s Thomas B. Edsall wrote this morning “interpretations of yesterday’s action varied greatly.” (That’s reporter-speak for “I can’t figure this out.”) Edsall’s bafflement was shared by other reporters trying to make sense of it all.

Why does this matter? As Campaign Desk reported yesterday, unlike the candidates themselves, independent committees (also known by their IRS designation, “527s”) aren’t restricted in how they spend their ad money. They are free, if they choose, to get downright down and dirty in ads attacking an opponent. With the FEC’s decision yesterday allowing the committees to continue operating, we can probably count on an end to what has been an upbeat string of campaign ads free of vitriol or savagery.

To be fair, the FEC action wasn’t so much a decision as it was a pit stop. A more definitive ruling that will spell out limits on independent campaign fundraising committees is expected perhaps next month, according to the Associated Press’ account of the meeting.

The FEC did impose some restrictions on funding of the independent groups, but not the tougher rules that many Republicans and campaign finance reformers had hoped for. The final ruling, when it comes, writes The New York Times’ Glen Justice, “could have profound effects on the 2004 election by helping Democrats” who rely heavily on such committees.

The most on-point description of the FEC’s action appeared in today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required). For those interested, here’s a brief summary: The 527s can continue to operate with “soft money” (money from organizations) but they also must obtain contributions from individuals (a.k.a. “hard money).

The best measure of yesterday’s FEC decision? Both Republicans and the Democrats were happy with the outcome. “There still are avenues for soft money in federal elections and there is no way we are going to shut them down,” said FEC Vice Chairman Ellen Weintraub.

Susan Q. Stranahan

Update, 2/19, 3:30 p.m.: The above post has been changed to note that the FEC’s statement is an advisory opinion, not a ruling.

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.