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FYI: The Federal Elections Commission’s full body chimed in this week on the question of whether the new campaign finance laws, known as McCain-Feingold, apply to nonprofit political advocacy; their answer raised still more questions. The McCain-Feingold law blocks political parties from using “soft money” on elections, limiting their spending to small contributions from individual donors. In January, the FEC general counsel issued an “advisory opinion” stating that the law actually encompasses any communication, by any organization, that promotes or criticizes an elected official. This meant nonprofits that, say, encourage their members to lobby a specific federal official on an issue, would have to follow campaign-funding rules. On February 18, the FEC commissioners ruled that the general counsel’s opinion applies only to political advocacy groups (known as “527s,” after a section of the IRS code) that are registered with the FEC. However, the commissioners also decided to begin working on new rules in March to govern a wider range of nonprofit advocacy. “The ruling is better than what the general counsel proposed, but still has a lot of dangers in it for nonprofit advocacy groups,” said People for the American Way’s Elliot Minceberg, who led a coalition of nonprofits in lobbying the FEC to discard the counsel’s advisory opinion. Having drawn the line at registered 527s for now, Minceberg explained, “they basically said, ‘Now we’re going to think about whether we can do this to other people too.” [2/23/04]

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