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Plugging a Big Leak

Here's at least some proof that campaign-finance reform is working: more of the money flowing into political campaigns is coming from individual donors than ever before. Those "hard" dollars - regulated by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) - are bound to help offset the political parties' reliance on donors writing big checks.

Even so, big money unfortunately still finds its way into elections, and the FEC should impose some stronger rules to better govern the political activities of one of their chief sources: nonprofit groups known as 527s (so named after a section of the tax code that governs them). These groups have flourished from huge influxes of soft-money dollars - those unregulated and unlimited contributions by individuals, corporations, and unions that McCain-Feingold sought to curb.

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So far, these groups have mostly helped Democrats. Some 21 Democratic-allied 527s raised nearly $56 million in the first quarter of 2004 according to IRS reports. These groups clearly are not nonpartisan entities. They've produced both pro-Kerry and anti-Bush television commercials. And they've spent money on get-out-the-vote programs - a violation of soft- money restrictions.

So it's no wonder that in March the Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee filed a complaint with the FEC. Or that many Democrats balked at regulating 527s - seeing them as the only way to compete effectively with the Bush campaign financial juggernaut.

Now, a bipartisan proposal from two FEC commissioners proposes a useful adjustment. It would declare that 527s running ads attacking or promoting federal candidates are, in fact, political committees, and must register with the FEC and more fully disclose those activities. Further, such 527s would have to spend more "hard" money in their efforts. The FEC takes up the proposal next week. It should both approve and enforce this latest proposal to help hold accountable groups so clearly involved in influencing elections.