DNC challenges McCain on campaign finance

After running afoul of the public campaign financing system, McCain faces legal challenge from the DNC.

By Steve Benen

Published April 14, 2008 7:43PM (EDT)

Last week, Barack Obama indicated that, despite previous talk to the contrary, he's prepared to opt out of the public-financing system in the fall, should he win the Democratic nomination. There's some debate as to whether Obama actually pledged to stay in the system, but in either case, John McCain, hoping to pressure Obama to give up one of his key advantages, has emphasized the issue rather aggressively.

The point that seems to be largely overlooked, however, is the fact that McCain isn't arguing from a position of strength or authority. Indeed, McCain may be claiming the moral high ground, but unlike Obama, McCain's the one who's apparently already run afoul of campaign law. Jane Hamsher has the story:

As we all know by now, John McCain applied for -- and was accepted into -- the public financing system for the primary. With that acceptance came certain requirements, one of those being that he can't spend more than $56,757,500 million during the primary.

As of February 29, 2008 McCain has -- by his own admission -- exceeded that amount. The FEC Chairman David Mason says McCain can't leave the public financing system without permission of the FEC, but John McCain is thumbing his nose at that. He has imperiously announced that the law doesn't apply to him, and is refusing to answer Mason's questions regarding a loan he took out that prevents him from opting out of the public financing system.

Since the FEC doesn't have enough commissioners to take action, having been gutted by Republicans in the Senate who are blocking the appointment of a quorum, the DNC's complaint about this matter has fallen on deaf ears. (We filed a similar complaint.) If the FEC fails to act, the law allows the DNC to file suit compelling them to do so -- which they did today.

What happens in response to the suit is a little tricky. The New York Times explained that today's suit is about compelling the FEC to investigate McCain's transgression, except the FEC can't investigate because it doesn't have a functioning panel of members. The DNC, in turn, wants to go after McCain directly.

This is pretty important, especially given McCain's rhetoric about Obama and the public-financing system. McCain, who used to present himself as something of a reformer, is the one flouting the rules and counting on a feckless FEC to get away with it. Jane added, "[T]he DNC's actions go straight to the heart of exposing this deceit and hypocrisy. Let's see if the press picks it up."

Stay tuned.

Steve Benen

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