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Net campaign finance reform plan draws opposition

A campaign finance reform plan to immunize bloggers from election laws is facing last-minute opposition before a vote in Congress on Wednesday.

A few months ago, a proposal in Congress to exempt the Internet from a weighty volume of campaign finance regulations seemed to enjoy near-unanimous support among politicians in Washington.

The reform plan counted as backers everyone from arch-conservatives to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat whose district includes part of Silicon Valley, even claimed that the legislation could pass in one afternoon.

Now that prediction will be tested. After the U.S. House of Representatives scheduled a vote for Wednesday on the proposal, which would immunize bloggers and other online commentators from election-law regulations, liberal advocacy groups have mounted a last-minute lobbying effort to derail the plan.

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What's new:
The U.S. House of Representatives has scheduled a vote for Wednesday on a proposal that would immunize bloggers and other online commentators from election-law regulations.

Bottom line:
Liberal advocacy groups have mounted a last-minute lobbying effort to derail the plan, which they call too broad and promises to usher in unregulated political advertising online.

More stories on this election finance reform

"This bill is drafted far broader than it needs to be, with the result that it is going to allow members of Congress to use corrupt, unlimited soft money to pay for ads on the Internet to support their campaigns," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, which presses for greater regulation of election-related spending and speech.

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is under court order to extend a controversial set of election laws to the Internet, and final regulations are expected at any time. They could cover everything from regulating hyperlinks to politicians' Web sites to forcing disclosure of affiliations with campaigns. After mounting an aggressive campaign to draw attention to the perils of regulating Web sites, bloggers managed to secure the introduction of the Online Freedom of Speech Act in the House and the Senate.

Opponents of election-law reform say the proposals are too broad and promise to usher in unregulated political advertising online. The New York Times, for instance, wrote in an editorial this week that the reform bills would carve out a loophole from the 2002 law that "stopped federal officials from tapping corporations, unions and fat cats for unregulated donations in the quid pro quo marketplace."

"If this law were to pass, a member of Congress could simply go to a large donor, corporation or union and control their spending of $1 million in soft money to pay for political advertising all over the Internet," Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Marty Meehan, D-Mass., wrote in a widely distributed letter to their House colleagues on Tuesday.

Free-speech advocates and opponents of Internet regulation, on the other hand, say the reform proposal is hardly threatening.

"Right now, I think what you've got is a lot of hysteria, and a lot of 'What might happen,' and that's not the way that we need to be doing regulations," said Marv Johnson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Instead of permitting the FEC to move ahead with an Internet crackdown, Johnson said, a wiser alternative would be to wait for actual evidence of a problem. "We need to see what happens in the real world, first of all... I don't think it makes sense at this point to say we need to regulate blogs until we see how everything's working."

John Samples, director of the Center for Representative Government at the free-market Cato Institute, also said he takes a dim view

of prophylactic regulation without evidence of an actual problem. "I see a connection between new technologies arriving, shaking up the status quo and then regulation following to blunt the threats," Samples said. "The campaign finance law is the effort of choice to control technologies because everybody thinks it's about corruption."

The measure continues to enjoy broad support from Democrats and Republicans, said Brian Walsh, spokesman for the House Administration Committee, which drafted the reform bill. The committee wanted to move swiftly "to make clear where the House stands on this issue," Walsh said.

A spat over "public communications"
The origins of this political spat lie in the complicated definitions found in a 2002 law called the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (also known as McCain-Feingold).

That law regulated election-related "public communications," which it defined as involving a broadcast, cable or satellite connection; a newspaper or magazine; a billboard or bulk mail campaign; or "any other form of general public political advertising." That language is broad enough to sweep in the Internet, a federal judge ruled last year.

Because the Democratic members of the FEC chose not to appeal the Internet regulations, the commission was forced to begin the process of drafting regulations.

The House reform proposal, only one page long, simply says that the law's definition "shall not include communications over the Internet." It's scheduled for a floor debate at 11 a.m. PT through a procedure that requires a two-thirds majority vote for approval.

That surprise vote has alarmed liberal advocacy groups, which quickly fired off a letter (click for PDF) this week warning that in the future, politicians could coordinate online spending "with corporations, labor unions and wealthy donors."

Craig Holman, an analyst at the Ralph Nader-affiliated Public Citizen group, said: "We're all caught off guard and scrambling as fast as we can to try to inform members of the House." Holman spoke favorably of an alternative, more regulatory bill that Reps. Shays and Meehan were planning to draft (their offices did not return phone calls requesting a copy).

Congress has considered--and rejected--a similar immunization for the Internet before.

At one point when the election law overhaul was being debated, Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, offered an amendment--nearly identical to this year's legislative fix--saying that "none of the limitations, prohibitions or reporting requirements of this act shall apply to any activity carried out through the use of the Internet." But the House rejected DeLay's amendment by a 160-268 vote.

If the House approves the measure, it would still have clear the Senate side, where an identical bill proposed by Reid is pending. Reid's office did not respond to interview requests on Tuesday.

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