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House Defeats Political Blogging Bill

The U.S. House of Representatives defeated a Republican bill Wednesday night that would have exempted political bloggers from campaign finance laws. Although a majority of lawmakers voted for the bill, 225-182, House special rules required a two-thirds majority to pass the legislation.

Democrats argued that Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling's Online Freedom of Speech Act would open the door for more soft money in politics with the Internet serving as the primary conduit.

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002 set limits on how individuals, small businesses and corporations can pay print, radio and television outlets for political "public communications" that are coordinated with political campaigns.

The BCRA did not target the Internet as an area of regulation and when the Federal Election Commission (FEC) issued definitions and rules to implement the law, it specifically exempted the Internet from any provisions of the BCRA.

That made bloggers and other free speech advocates happy until a federal court ruled the FEC's interpretation of the law was too broad. While the FEC has redrafted the rules to limit the impact of the BCRA on the Internet, certain provisions do, in fact, affect bloggers.

Hensarling's bill would have relieved political bloggers from any provisions of campaign finance laws, no matter the blogger's financial connection to a campaign. Nevada Democrat Harry Reid is sponsoring identical legislation in the U.S. Senate.

Hensarling added, "Within the next few weeks, the FEC is expected to finalize rules and regulations that could squash not only free speech and political activism, but also impede innovation and technology, unless Congress acts now."

The new FEC regulations leaves political blogs created and maintained by individuals exempt from the BCRA, but they do cover uses of the Internet involving substantial monetary transactions such as advertising.

The proposed regulations also fine-tune the FEC's current disclaimer rules requirements for certain political e-mail. Currently the FEC requires disclaimers if 500 substantially similar unsolicited e-mails are sent. The FEC's refinement defines unsolicited e-mail as that sent to lists purchased from third parties.

According to the FEC, the new e-mail proposal is meant to ensure that the regulations only cover spam and not communications to large groups of an individual's own personal contacts.

That's not a bad thing, says Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.).

"We understand that a number of bloggers are concerned that somehow campaign finance laws will prevent them from exercising their freedom of speech," Shays said in a Monday letter to House colleagues urging defeat of Hensarling's bill. "The reality is that FEC regulations can and should reaffirm that bloggers can continue to write freely and at the same time make sure paid political advertising is brought under the law.

Hensarling's bill, Shays contends, "Goes far beyond exempting bloggers and allows federal candidates and political parties to again make use of soft money in federal campaigns."

If Hensarling's bill had passed, Shays said 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."

Shays added that a desire to help bloggers "is no excuse to roll back existing law banning soft money in federal campaigns."

Hensarling remained unmoved by Shays' arguments.

"In an age when only about 60 percent of eligible Americans bother to vote, any reasonable person would agree that the federal government should be encouraging more people to get active in the political process and to have their voices heard," he said. "Unfortunately, quite the opposite is happening."

He warned, "New federal campaign finance regulations could actually end up stifling political speech and threatening Americans' constitutional rights. Today the newest battlefield in the fight to protect the First Amendment is the Internet."