A Soft-Money Loophole?

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Your political beliefs may already have won you a fabulous vacation getaway! Or a new long-distance carrier! Or the chance to help find a cure for cancer!

The Federal Election Commission agreed Thursday to let national political parties sell their mailing lists to anyone - including corporations, unions and foreign nationals.

The new campaign finance law bans all those groups from contributing to political party committees, and the agreement creates a new source of income to help make up the loss of millions of dollars in corporate and union contributions.

The buyer of a party list would have to pay the going price and show that it has been used to sell subscriptions, products or services. The party would have to show sales constituted only a small portion of its use of the lists.

Party committees would deposit proceeds from the list rentals or sales in their federal account, and could use the money on federal election activity.

Paul Sanford, director of the campaign finance watchdog group FEC Watch, said the commission's action would open a significant loophole in the new law's ban on "soft money," corporate and union contributions.

"The parties can get around the soft money ban by making their own soft money," Sanford said. "Instead of having businesses that want to get involved in politics ... they have a political party that wants to get into business."

Commission Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub said that if political parties start misusing the sales of their mailing lists, the FEC will revisit the decision.

The commission was responding to a request by the Libertarian National Committee, which had asked permission to continue renting its lists of members, donors and prospects.

A majority of the six-member FEC expressed support for selling the lists, but stopped short of a final vote, instead directing its lawyers to write up the new policy. Commissioners will vote on that document over the next few days.

The Libertarians also sought permission to sell advertising space in a monthly newsletter and license party trademarks to T-shirt vendors and others who make political memorabilia.

A majority of the FEC opposed the sale of advertising space and party trademarks. Several commissioners said it would be too difficult to price such services, and determine whether the sales were legitimate or fraudulent.

By contrast, the mass-mailing industry - pitching vacation cruises, credit cards, calling services and charities - is well established, making it easy to determine a list's price.

Republican National Committee spokesman Kevin Sheridan said the RNC has no plans to rent out or sell its mailing list. A Democratic National Committee spokeswoman did not return a call.

Mailing lists can be big business.

The AARP, for example, collected roughly $16 million in 2000 by charging to share the names of its more than 34 million members with companies endorsed by the nation's largest senior citizen lobby.

Last year, the Libertarian National Committee made about $37,000 renting out its mailing list and $60,000 from newsletter ads, party attorney William T. Hall said.

Hall praised the commission's action on its mailing list, but said it shouldn't restrict the party's other business activities. Payments for ads or use of the Libertarian trademark are just that, not party contributions in disguise, he said.

By Sharon Theimer