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527 Reform Could Boost Party Committees

Lost amid the focus on legislation passed by the House on Wednesday to regulate soft-money "527" organizations is a provision in the bill that would lift the current caps on party committees' coordinated contributions to campaigns.

Under the legislation, national party committees could donate unlimited sums to individual campaigns and work with the campaigns directly to decide how those dollars are spent. Current law prohibits the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Campaign Committee from giving more than $79,000 in coordinated funds to House candidates; the limits for the parties' two Senate committees are higher -- ranging from $79,000 to $2 million per candidate.

Arguably, waiving these limits would have a more direct impact on the 2006 elections than the curtailing of large-dollar donations from individuals to various 527 issue groups. While 527s like America Coming Together, the Media Fund, Progress for America and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were a major factor in the 2004 presidential election, there is little proof that affluent individuals have much interest in spending to influence specific House and Senate elections. In the aftermath of the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002, several groups were formed to direct soft money to congressional elections; none was successful.

Given the strict coordination limits currently in place, the national party committees spend most of the millions they raise on independent expenditure (IE) campaigns, which typically take the form of massive television advertising buys. The committees can spend unlimited dollars on IE campaigns; the catch is that they are not allowed to have any interaction with the campaigns those ads are designed to benefit.

The bill passed by the House yesterday would render IE campaigns unnecessary since it would allow party committees to spend unlimited sums and coordinate those expenditures with the candidates.

There are several other major advantages for party committees if they are allowed to funnel unlimited dollars to a candidate and offer advice on how it is spent.

First, broadcasters are mandated to offer political candidates the lowest unit rate when they are buying ad time, a courtesy they are not required to extend to party committees. As a result, the cost for a week of advertising when purchased by a candidate instead of a party committee is often 20 to 30 percent less. Translation: More bang for the buck.

Second, no ad paid for by a candidate can be taken off the air. Party committee ads are regularly pulled over questions of accuracy as both sides push the legal limit of what they can get away with saying. A waiving of the coordinated limits would put many of the messages currently handled by the committees into the hands of the candidates, making it extremely difficult for the other side to have a questionable ad removed.

Who would benefit? On the House side, it's Republicans, who have a considerable cash-on-hand edge over the DCCC. But on the Senate side, Democrats have turned the traditional Republican advantage on its head -- with a nearly two-to-one cash edge at the end of February.

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 6, 2006; 2:43 PM ET
Categories:  House , Senate  
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