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House rejects bill to exempt Internet from campaign-finance rules

WASHINGTON—There's broad agreement among Democrats and Republicans that the Internet writings of political bloggers shouldn't be tangled in complex federal campaign-finance regulations.

But how to keep that from happening is fast becoming controversial.

Bloggers are pushing Congress to pass legislation adding a nine-word sentence that would exempt the Internet from the definition of "public communications" in federal campaign-finance regulations. Supporters say the change is needed to protect bloggers and online activists from having to hire expensive election-law attorneys, which could squelch political free speech on the Internet.

On Wednesday night, the bill failed to get the two-thirds majority of the House of Representatives required to pass it under special rules that allowed it come to a vote quickly. But a majority of representatives supported it, 225-182, and backers said they would bring the legislation up again under normal rules that would allow it to pass.

"If bloggers are compelled to hire lawyers to navigate this complex, gray, murky world of federal regulation, many would simply cease to operate. That would only leave the wealthier participants in this blogosphere," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, the main sponsor of the legislation. He warned before the vote that without his bill, bloggers could be fined for linking to campaign Web sites or forwarding candidates' news releases to e-mail lists.

But opponents of the legislation—including the four major sponsors of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act and the head of the Federal Election Commission—said the exemption was so broad that it would open a huge loophole. Unregulated donations, or "soft money," for Internet ads and e-mail campaigns would flow through it, they say, gutting the law's attempt to rid political contests of such contributions from corporations and labor unions.

"This legislation, under the guise of protecting bloggers, actually undercuts the progress made by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act and reopens the floodgates of corrupting soft money in federal elections," said Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., one of the lead House sponsors of the 2002 legislation along with Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn.

They wrote to their colleagues this week urging them to vote down Hensarling's bill and introduced their own, more narrowly crafted legislation Tuesday to exempt bloggers.

In a way, Shays and Meehan, along with the Senate sponsors of the campaign-finance act, John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., are to blame for the controversy. Their bill, which outlawed unregulated "soft-money" contributions to federal campaigns, didn't mention the Internet in a definition of "public communication" that ranged from satellite television to billboards to phone banks.

So when the FEC drew up new regulations in 2002 based on the law, it exempted Internet communications from the guidelines. Shays and Meehan sued, saying they intended the law to apply to the Internet. A federal court ruled in their favor and struck down the FEC's Internet exemption.

When the FEC began drawing up new guidelines this year, bloggers objected and sought help from Congress.

"When government officials that don't understand technology try to write laws that govern technology, it very rarely works well," said Mike Krempasky, the director of redstate.org, a conservative blog. Liberal bloggers also opposed the regulations, and support for Hensarling's bill crosses party lines.

The FEC is split on the issue, with Chair Scott Thomas, a Democratic appointee, opposing the broad exemption in Hensarling's bill, and the vice chair, Michael Toner, a Republican appointee, supporting it.

"I think the goal of all the commissioners is to make it abundantly clear we do not intend to regulate blogging activity," Thomas said. The commission hasn't yet approved its proposed rules, which generally would exempt all Internet communications except paid ads.

But the proposed rules and definitions are 13 pages long, and Toner said they could open the door to problems for bloggers in the heat of political campaigns.

"If you have certain rules and restrictions, your opponents will file complaints and you'll have to hire lawyers," Toner said. It would be an expensive problem even if a blogger eventually is cleared of the charges, he said.

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(Puzzanghera covers Washington for the San Jose Mercury News.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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