Follow the Money

Newsflash: Party Committee Seeks More Money

The Republican National Committee, leader of a team that was swamped by President-elect Obama and the Democrats in the money race this year, is after new financial opportunities. It's taking the legal route, filing two lawsuits to challenge provisions of current campaign finance law.

Not that the RNC has ever championed campaign finance reform, but one challenge aims at the biggest legislative achievement of Sen. John McCain. The RNC wants to cut a big hole in the soft-money ban — the core provision of the McCain-Feingold law, aka the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. Nine days ago, McCain was the party's presidential nominee and BFF.

Both of the provisions targeted by the RNC have been upheld by the Supreme Court. But two justices are new since then. And the RNC's lawyer, Jim Bopp, stands as America's most successful plaintiffs' lawyer in campaign finance cases.

RNC Chairman Robert "Mike" Duncan said in a press call that they're not attacking the anti-corruption goals of campaign finance law. "If there's corruption in politics, we believe that our transparency highlights the corruption and we have a very accountable system," he said.

The McCain-Feingold provision in question prevents the national party committees from raising soft money — unregulated, six- and seven-figure contributions from corporations, unions and the wealthy. Before Congress passed McCain-Feingold in 2002, party leaders and lawmakers waged an ever more feverish pursuit of soft-money donors. Since then, the party committees can't accept more than $28,500 per year from anyone, and nothing from unions or corporations.

More... maybe more than you want to know... after the jump.

The RNC argues that it wants the soft money, yes — but only to use when there aren't any federal officeholders or candidates around. Chairman Duncan used the examples of gubernatorial campaigns and redistricting battles in state legislatures.

Don Simon, a lawyer who works with campaign finance reform advocates, says Congress already considered that argument and rejected it. According to Simon, Congress decided that the national party committees are just too close to the officeholders (sometimes literally: the RNC's offices are two blocks from the House wing of the Capitol, and the Democratic National Committee is just a few blocks farther). And Congress felt that soft-money donors should stop getting the impression their money can talk on the national scene.

The Supreme Court upheld the ban when it reviewed McCain-Feingold in 2003.

The RNC's other target is a provision that caps "coordinated expenditures" by the national party committees. In English, the law says the RNC and McCain's campaign, in the case of the 2008 presidential election, could jointly control spending of $19.2 million. (There are much smaller caps for House and Senate campaigns.)

Duncan says it's crazy not to let a party go all-out for its candidates. Defenders of the law say that removing the cap would let big donors finance their favorite candidates through the back door.

Again, this is a provision that's been fought over and survived. In two decisions, the Supreme Court created a solution typical for campaign finance law. It split the difference: no relief on the "coordinated expenditure" caps, but party committees could make unlimited "independent expenditures" on behalf of candidates. Practically speaking, each party committee picks a few strategists, gives them a wad of money and sends them off to operate like a commando unit.

So it's not like the campaign finance laws are air-tight. And if there are more gaps to be probed, Jim Bopp (who's also a Republican National committeeman) is the lawyer to probe them.

A few years ago, he dissected a provision of McCain-Feingold that restricted the use of corporate and union money in advocacy-group TV ads. The Supreme Court has given the provision its stamp of approval.

In 2007, with two new justices on board to hear Bopp's argument, the Court carved out a big exemption. And now corporate and union dollars are back in the game.

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