THE LETTER OF THE LAW
Federal Election Commissioners couldn't help but giggle during a hearing Tuesday considering a rule that is key to the campaign finance reform legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Bush. At issue: just who should and should not be banned from collecting so-called soft money, those unlimited contributions generally made by labor unions, corporations and ultra-wealthy donors.
Under the campaign finance reform act, the soft-money ban applies to politicians running for federal office and their political parties. What is less clear -- and what the FEC was struggling with on this day -- was just how far its rules should go in ensuring that the McCain-Feingold ban on soft money also affects those staff working for federal-level politicians and political parties. Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold both have told the commission that their law intended that so-called "agents" of politicians and parties should be barred from raising and spending soft money. The AFL-CIO disagrees. And that was what had the FEC laughing behind the scenes. AFL-CIO attorney Larry Gold, speaking before the commission, said it was unfair of the FEC to listen to McCain and Feingold because their job as legislators was done and they were biased toward clearer and tighter restraint on campaign fundraising.
But Gold's real problem was with the term "agent." That's because the AFL-CIO estimates that almost 90 percent of its local political apparatus is linked in some way to the Democratic Party: from local union hall get-out-the-vote programs to campaign fund drives. "It is impossible to separate many of the local union guys from the party. Many have dual roles, jobs with the unions and jobs with the Democratic Party. You can't separate them," says an AFL-CIO lobbyist in Washington.
If the FEC adhered to a tight definition of a political party agent, all those AFL-CIO members who also worked on local Democratic Party operations would be barred from accepting union funds, steering those funds to candidates or spending those funds for political purposes. "They couldn't do anything for the party, and by extension, many of their colleagues might not be able to do anything for the party," says a DNC grassroots coordinator. "Much of this is unclear. The only thing that isn't is that we're screwed if our union ties somehow have to be cut or curtailed."
The federal election commissioners weren't overly sympathetic to Gold's or the unions' plight. And while they didn't tip their hand, FEC staffers say, the commission seems to be leaning toward listening to what McCain and Feingold have been pushing. "This was their idea, who better understands what their intent was?" asks an FEC staff member.
In a rush to make sure that organized labor will be as big a help as possible as long as possible, the AFL-CIO is in the midst of a drive to try to net an additional $20 million in union dues that could be steered toward Democratic Party causes for the 2002 election cycle. "We might as well give it to them while we can," says the AFL-CIO lobbyist. "We'll deal with the new language and the new definitions when we have to."
Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden publicly stated that he would not assist Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury's campaign to unseat Republican Sen. Gordon Smith by badmouthing his Capitol Hill colleague. "He said he'd help raise money and he'd support Bradbury, but he wouldn't go negative," says a staffer on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "And that's a problem. We're going to McAuliffe about it."
In early polls, Smith has a strong lead on Bradbury, but the DNC has targeted Smith as a possible weak link in the 2002 incumbent races, and has indicated to state party officials that it will contribute perhaps $1 million if it will unseat Smith. "It's worse than Wyden not wanting to go all the way for the party, because Smith is actually using his friendship with Wyden as a campaign tool," says the DSCC aide. "It's embarrassing us."
Smith has been quoted in Oregon papers as saying that having him and Wyden in the Senate makes for a good team and that a split delegation is good for Oregonians. A picture of Smith and Wyden together might run in future Smith TV spots.
"Senator Wyden isn't sitting on the sidelines," says a Wyden staffer in Oregon. "He's working hard for Mr. Bradbury. But he considers Senator Smith a friend and he's not going to slam the man for political gain. It's not his style."
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