Court Hears Final Arguments in Campaign-Finance Dispute

W By Nick Anderson

wASHINGTON – Two days of arguments aimed at overturning a far-reaching campaign-finance law wrapped up in federal court Thursday with lawyers continuing to assert that it cracks down too hard on political parties, interest groups and wealthy donors.

But one stood up to charge that the law is a raw deal for the little guy.

John Bonifaz, an attorney representing a group of individuals he said are ordinary Americans, urged a special three-judge panel to strike down certain provisions in the law that increase the amounts of money presidential and congressional candidates can raise directly.

The judges, Bonifaz said, would have to decide whether federal elections will be “open only to the wealthy and well-connected, or whether our elections will be open to all.”

The law enacted earlier this year prohibits national parties from raising so-called “soft money” – largely unregulated donations often given in six- and seven-figure checks. That is a central point of dispute in the court case, McConnell vs. Federal Election Commission, that challenges the law as unconstitutional.

But the law also expands the ability of candidates for federal office to raise campaign contributions by doubling a decades-old limit on individual donations, to $2,000 per election from $1,000. Such donations are known as hard money.

As arguments ended in U.S. District Court, plaintiffs continued to probe for weaknesses in the most significant campaign law of the past quarter-century.

Some attacked a provision banning donations by minors. Government attorneys countered that it was meant to stop parents from circumventing donation limits.

Others questioned a section that restricts communication between interest groups and candidates or parties. Government lawyers said that without this restriction, candidates and parties could benefit from large sums of money spent by interest groups on political activity.

The panel is expected to issue its ruling by early next year. The case is then expected to move directly to the Supreme Court for final review.

The arguments have been closely followed by many who have been prominent in the debate over campaign-finance regulations.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who led opposition to the law in Congress and is the lead plaintiff in the case against it, sat in the front row Thursday and occasionally leaned forward to consult with one of his attorneys, Kenneth W. Starr, the former independent counsel who investigated President Clinton.

Sen. Russell D. Feingold, D-Wis., a leading proponent of the law, came to watch Wednesday. So did Marc Racicot, chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association.

The RNC and NRA are among other plaintiffs seeking to have the law overturned.

In a related development Thursday, the FEC approved the latest in a series of rules it has issued this year to implement the law.

The new rule attempts to spell out standards for judging when a political advertisement has been coordinated with a candidate.

The issue is important because independent advertising is not subject to federal contribution limits; coordinated ads

are considered donations to a campaign and must be disclosed and regulated like any other gift.

Under the new rule, federal regulators will review ads paid for by interest groups at any point in a campaign if the commercials expressly call for a candidate’s election or defeat. The regulators also will review ads by interest groups that run within 120 days of an election and refer to a candidate or political party.