FEC’s Decision on Internet Will Alter Congressional Races
April 20, 2006
by Joseph P. Tartaro
The 2006 congressional elections are just seven months away and there are already a number of developments that may change the face of races for the 110th Congress, which will convene in January 2007.
There are a number of polls which have suggested that the public is swinging toward the Democrats, but there are some realities of politics which, at this point at least, make it highly unlikely that the Republicans will lose control of the House. Likewise, the odds are not very great for the Democrats to regain control of the Senate.
However, almost everything is possible in politics, and there are likely to be some surprises. But when you read or hear that the polls favor Democrats, that President Bush’s approval ratings are way down and that some GOP members of Congress are distancing themselves from the White House, you can take that news with a grain of salt.
The truth is that historically the public has always given Congress low marks as a wholeregardless of which party is in the majoritybut has given high marks to their own representative. The public has always tended to blame Congress while assigning little or none of that blame to their own individual congressmen.
That is a key reason why incumbents keep winning and why, if there is an electoral contest at all, it involves open seats. In most cases, a congressman or woman in their second or third term is going to be re-elected and in many districts, the opposition party can’t get a candidate or the financing to even field an opponent.
1994 and 2004 Races
Of course, there are cases when there have been major shifts. The ones that come to mind for most gunowners would be the 1994 congressional elections, in which people like Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks and House Majority Leader Tom Foley were upset, and perhaps the Senate race in North Dakota in 2004 when incumbent Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle was ousted.
This year, no matter how dissatisfied the public may be about the War in Iraq, the illegal immigration issue, the further erosion of America’s industrial jobs, the races will be decided on local issues, and only about two dozen House racesmainly vacanciesare even rated as toss-ups by the political experts.
One of those races to watch is in the 6th District of Illinois. This is a seat that Republican Henry Hyde has held for 32 years. Hyde who was chairman of the Judiciary Committee for many years and is currently chair of the International Relations Committee had a mixed record on the gun issue, but he was always re-elected in what was considered a safe Republican District in suburban Chicagoland.
This year, however, the Illinois Democratsmostly anti-gun Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Gov. Rod Blagojevichare zeroing in on that seat and they have a strong candidate in L. Tammy Duckworth, a retired Army major and helicopter pilot who lost both legs in a grenade attack in Iraq. Duckworth beat back strong opposition in the state primaries in March, and Democratic money is easy to get because of the surprise 2004 capture of the neighboring 8th District, another long term GOP stronghold.
As this column was being written, embattled former House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-TX), who was a major friend to gunowners during his 11 terms in office, announced that he was retiring in June and would not be a candidate for reelection in November. The GOP may retain this seat, but it is another indication that the next Congress, even if still controlled by the Republicans, will be somewhat different.
If the Democrats are successful in their bid to win majority control again, you can expect big changes, with some pretty anti-gun Democrats assuming the chairs of important committees like Judiciary.
Another reason the 2006 elections will be different is that we will see a greater influence of the use of the Internet by creative political operatives. Even though he didn’t win his party’s presidential nomination in 2004, then relatively unknown Howard Dean’s campaign used the Internet very creatively to raise money and build a significant base. Other national and local candidates have also learned that the Internet offers some power tools and ways to be more selective in targeting messages to likely key constituencies and even precincts.
The New York Times ran a front page story on Apr. 2 in which they predicted “new tricks in old game” as part of the sweeping changes facing the political pros via the Internet. The web offers a variety of new ways to reach the voters and the “rainmakers” who provide the financial support in big gobs. The Internet makes it possible to have more efficient and less costly means of communication, using e-mail, interactive websites, candidate and party blogs, text messaging, etc. The web can be used to recruit volunteers, to organize rallies and get out the vote campaigns.
More importantly, the Internet offers a powerful way to circumvent many of the incumbent-friendly provisions of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill that the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other groups fought in court.
Significantly, the NRA was delighted when the Federal Election Commission (FEC) voted 6-0 on Mar. 27 in favor of campaign-finance rules that will leave political speech on the Internet mostly unregulated, according to The Washington Times.
“It didn’t take long to reach a decision,” said FEC spokesman Ian Stirton. “All six members voted in favor.”
The rules approved by the FEC will give websites, blogs and e-mails the same exemption that is provided to newspapers that cover political campaigns.
That means bloggers can promote or criticize federal candidates and issues without fear of financial penalty.
However, the rules will regulate on-line paid political free speech.
Two days later, The Times editorialized about the decision:
“ ‘Tread lightly’ was our advice to the Federal Election Commission last year regarding government interference with the Internet. And so it has. In an unanimous decision . . . the FEC voted to save most Internet speech from campaign-finance regulations. This is welcome news, if also expected.
“The truth is that the FEC never wanted to touch the Internet to begin with, but was forced by a Clinton-appointed judge, who said the Internet was not exempt from the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform act. Her decision elicited harsh and deserved outrage from both the left and right wings of the blogospheretwo realms of society that rarely agree. The FEC responded with a 96-page proposal that ‘recognizes the Internet as a unique and evolving mode of mass communication and political speech that is distinct from other media in a manner that warrants a restrained regulatory approach.’ In layman’s terms what this means is that bloggers and other on-line political sites are given the ‘media exemption’ that allows newspapers like this one to criticize politicians with no strings attached. . . .
“Unfortunately,” The Times noted in conclusion, “the regulationists refuse to go away. Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Russ Feingold (D-WI) are pushing to include the Internet under the umbrella of their anti-free-speech legislation, and they have allies in the House. Which is why, as former FEC Chairman Brad Smith argues, Congress would do well to pass Rep. Jeb Hensarling’s (R-TX) Online Freedom of Speech Act to codify the FEC’s rules into law. ‘What worries us is the “slippery slope” argument,’ Mike Walz, Hensarling press secretary, told us. As good as the FEC decision is, the federal government is now on-line, so to speak. It’s generally a time for concern whenever the government gets a foot in door, since there’s no telling how a future FEC would interpret the rules.” Return to Archive Index