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A federal court Thursday heard challenges to the new campaign finance law’s limits on the ads that political parties and interest groups run on behalf of candidates, even as the Federal Election Commission spelled out how it will enforce the limits. Lawyers opposing the limits told a three-judge panel the law will chill political speech by corporations, labor unions and political parties. They were among several groups challenging the law in a hearing that began Wednesday. Jan Baran, an attorney for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and others, said the law prohibits corporations and labor unions from coordinating expenditures with candidates. That, he argued, unconstitutionally hinders their ability to lobby Congress by subjecting their political activities to lengthy FEC investigations. “Where are the bright lines?” Baran said. “These risks are not hypothetical.” Charles Bell, an attorney for the California Democratic and Republican parties, said the coordination limits would force national and state political parties to police the activities of scores of local party committees. That is because the law treats party committees at all levels as one entity when any of them makes a coordinated expenditure for a candidate, Bell argued. Once such an expenditure is made, the party cannot spend independently on behalf of the same candidate. The FEC agreed Thursday that the law does treat all party committees as one entity. The commission spelled out a test to determine when the cost of ads run by political parties or interest groups on a candidate’s behalf will be subject to federal contribution limits. The commission said it will examine such ads to see if they have been coordinated with a candidate’s campaign if they expressly call for a candidate’s election or defeat, or if they are run within 120 days of an election, are targeted at voters and refer to a candidate or political party. If the commission determines that such ads have been coordinated, the costs would be subject to federal contribution limits. Campaign finance watchdogs said the new standard would allow outside groups and political parties to run attack ads for weeks before elections in states that have early primaries, without any FEC scrutiny. “It’s a standard that is an engraved invitation to abuse,” Common Cause attorney Don Simon said. Commissioner Scott Thomas had pushed for a broader standard that would have required the FEC to examine any ad that promoted, supported, attacked or opposed a candidate, regardless of when it ran. But a majority of the six-member commission disagreed. The commission chairman, David Mason, said the 120-day rule would actually be tougher than the commission’s previous standard. That triggered FEC examination of ads only when they expressly advocated for or against a candidate. “This puts the commission in a much more aggressive position than we had been in,” Mason said. Mason said the commission’s work was complicated because past court rulings have not spelled out what tests the FEC can use in determining when groups are coordinating their ads with candidates. In the new campaign finance law, Congress directed the FEC to scrap its old rules and implement tougher ones — without saying in detail what those should be. The law took effect Nov. 6. It bans national parties from raising soft money, the unlimited contributions from corporations, unions and others that the parties had spent on generic activities such as issue ads, get-out-the-vote drives and operating costs. The two national parties reported Thursday that they raised $24 million in soft money in the final 19 days before Nov. 6. The Democratic National Committee raised $15.2 million; its Republican counterpart took in $8.8 million. The law also bars a range of interest groups from airing ads close to elections that mention federal candidates. The law’s proponents contend groups have used phony issue ads to evade a ban on the use of union or corporate money to influence federal elections. The court is expected to rule next month, clearing the way for an immediate appeal to the Supreme Court by the losing side. Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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