OPINION: PLUGGING THE LOOPHOLE

I hear it all the time these days, from political pros on the left and the right. The McCain-Feingold campaign-reform law, they tell me, turned out to have a big downside: the rise of so-called 527 groups, with their billionaire backers and nasty, negative television ads that threaten to bring politics to a new low. There is only one problem with this argument. It is completely false.

Yes, it's true that after we banned soft money--the corrupting, virtually unregulated slush funds that both political parties came to depend on--some large donors began writing checks to 527s. There's nothing wrong with 527s in themselves. The groups can play an important role in elections. They can be used to fund get-out-the-vote efforts and educate voters about issues. And many 527s do just that. But more recently, unscrupulous operatives on both sides have begun to use them to run political smear campaigns against George Bush and John Kerry.

This is illegal, plain and simple, because 527s must comply with the same funding requirements that apply to candidates. The law says that any organization that engages in partisan political activities for the purpose of influencing a federal election falls under the campaign-finance laws. (Those laws limit the size of individual donations.) And though the groups claim they don't explicitly throw their support behind Bush or Kerry, just watch a Swift Boat Veterans ad or a MoveOn.org spot and see if you can figure out which candidate they want elected. Their activities are so blatantly partisan there is no doubt that they should be subject to the same rules as any other organization trying to influence the election.

Why are these groups allowed to break the law? Because of the Federal Election Commission's despicable failure to do its job. Led by a Democratic apparatchik on one side and a right-wing ideologue on the other, the commission is politically hidebound, and has refused to take on those who brazenly thumb their noses at the law. It's hard to argue that McCain-Feingold is responsible for that.

We're working to fix the problem. The violations will be addressed in the courts, and I will join with like-minded colleagues in the Senate to take legislative action. Let me be clear. I'm not for shutting down 527s. There's nothing corrupt about them in principle--what's wrong is the way they are being deliberately misused while indifferent bureaucrats look the other way. That's why, in the long run, we'll need to take on the larger problem: fixing the FEC. To help restore Americans' faith in the fairness of elections, we need a bipartisan, nonideological commission that upholds the law; one that rises above politics--not succumbs to it.