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Red-Faced Money Politics

A small but noteworthy item appeared in the news recently that offers encouragement to campaign-finance reformers on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. And it shows that their efforts may actually be having a positive effect on the drive to keep private money from influencing public service.

The news was that the Leadership Forum, a nonprofit organization run by a former key aide to House majority leader Tom DeLay (R) of Texas, returned $1 million of so-called soft money it received just before the new Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) went into effect in November.

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The Forum originally received the $1 million from the party's National Republican Campaign Committee's building fund. But that transfer certainly looked like a convenient vehicle for a recycling of soft money, which political parties can no longer accept or use under the BCRA. The individual heading the Forum had close ties to the House Republican leader, and one report even quoted a source describing the Forum as the "House go-to operation in future federal elections."

It took a complaint to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) by a number of government watchdog groups, including Common Cause and the Center for Responsive Politics, before the Leadership Forum gave the money back. The groups charged that the Forum was a "shadow" campaign committee that would continue to solicit soft money for the national parties - i.e., maintain the political fundraising status quo.

In returning the money before the FEC actually ruled on the complaint, though, the Forum set an example to both Democrats and Republicans alike as the parties continue to sift through BCRA's admittedly complex new rules.

But other means and measures for skirting BCRA still are being actively considered, especially ways to use state political parties to accomplish soft-money goals the national parties can no longer employ. Look no further than the Democrats' own creation of "DSPO" (the Democratic State Parties Organization), alleged in the same FEC complaint to be yet another post-BCRA soft-money-raising vehicle.

In fact, the national parties have become so inextricably intertwined with soft money that disentangling them remains a difficult task. As the BCRA gets practiced on the ground, it will likely take a couple of election cycles for the law's changes to be fully assimilated by Democrats and Republicans, and for the parties to get out of the soft-money business. The FEC could have its enforcement hands full in the meantime.

It's hoped, though, the Leadership Forum's move is a harbinger of the good faith efforts needed to stick to the new rules.


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