Three groups were fined $630,000 last week for violating campaign rules in trying to influence the 2004 election. The fines were a pittance of the money spent on TV spots – and two years too late.
But at least the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has sent a regulatory warning to these "527" advocacy groups (named for a tax provision), that have sprung up to get around campaign-finance restrictions. In both the 2004 and 2006 elections, the 527s spent nearly one billion dollars, tapping money from wealthy individuals, unions, and corporations.
The three fined groups – Swiftboat Veterans and POWs for Truth, the Moveon.org Voter Fund, and affiliates of the League of Conservation Voters – failed to register with the FEC and report political donations. They also took in more money than is allowed.
Their attacks – the first on John Kerry's war record, the second two on President Bush –were specific enough to violate 527 rules against advocating for or against a particular candidate. They acted like ordinary political committees but weren't bound by contribution limits.
Both the FEC and Congress need to provide firmer rules for 527s. While the US has made progress to curb campaign contributions and spending, well-monied interests still try to exploit loopholes to influence voters and government decision-making. This year's corruption scandals in Congress show the need is still great to fight ties between money and governance in Washington.