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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

VIEW FROM AMERICA: Illegal Funding Of Ads Shames U.S. Elections




As the 1998 congressional races headed into their final days, the Republican and Democratic congressional party committees poured millions of dollars in huge unlimited soft-money contributions into television ad campaigns running in targeted U.S. House and Senate races around the country. These, the political parties claim, were "issue" ads, not campaign ads.


That is palpably false. The ads were blatant electioneering ads run for the clear purpose of directly influencing the outcome of House and Senate elections. And everyone involved knows it.


The use of soft money to finance these political party campaign ads violates existing Federal Election Commission rulings and has never been sanctioned by the courts. FEC rulings on this subject state that soft money cannot be used by a political party to fund any ad that contains a federal electioneering message, which is defined as a message that explicitly or implicitly urges voters to support or oppose a federal candidate.


The practice of using soft money to evade federal campaign finance laws has been growing for some time and exploded to new heights with U.S. President Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1996. But this year even the fig leaves of legitimacy were dropped by the political parties as they marched forward at record congressional levels with bald-faced soft-money illegalities.


House Republicans led by Speaker Newt Gingrich were far and away the biggest 1998 players in this illicit game. In contested House races around the country, they conducted an estimated $25 million phony "issue" ad campaign called "Operation Breakout," which they explicitly stated was intended to pick up as many as 25 additional seats.


But the House Republicans are not alone. The other three political party congressional committees - the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the House Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee - also conducted multimillion-dollar "issue" ad campaigns this fall. Even a cursory examination of these ads quickly confirms these are campaign activities, not issue discussions.


The parties argue that their ad campaigns were perfectly legal because for an ad to be covered by federal campaign finance laws it must contain express advocacy such as "vote for" or "vote against" the federal candidate named in the ad. The Supreme Court has never ruled that ads by political parties, or by their candidates, must contain these so-called "magic words" in order to be subject to federal campaign finance laws. The court has, however, ruled that the activities of political parties "are, by definition, campaign related."


We have heard a lot of talk by Washington politicians in recent months about the fundamental importance of the rule of law. But, it turns out, many Republicans and Democrats in Congress do not believe the rule of law applies to them when it comes to raising and spending big money in U.S. politics.


It's way past time for the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission to begin enforcing the law and holding our elected representatives accountable for their massive illegal activities.


Fred Wertheimer is president of Democracy 21, a public policy group. He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.