Free-Speech Connection: FEC Chairman Says Free Speech and Contributions to Campaigns Are Linked. (Campaign Finance)

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The chairman of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) says he believes campaign contributions are a constitutionally protected form of free speech, even as his agency prepares to defend a new ban on large contributions in the courts.

FEC Chairman David M. Mason says he has no qualms about defending the campaign-finance law, which is being challenged in federal court as an unconstitutional restriction on freedom of speech. But he said in an interview with the Washington Times that he thinks free speech and giving money to political campaigns are inextricably connected.

"I agree with the analysis that the purpose of money is to facilitate speech and debate about politics and therefore it has to be constitutionally protected as a necessary component, if you will, of free speech," Mason said. "It's not the same thing, but it's inextricably combined."

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is leading the legal offensive, citing those very arguments in federal court against the law, named for its leading cosponsors, Sens. Russ D. Feingold (D-Wis.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Mason, a former Heritage Foundation senior fellow who fought campaign-finance regulations before President George W. Bush named him FEC chairman, also defended the agency's rulemaking to clarify parts of the law, which prohibits large, unregulated contributions to political parties.

Critics charged that the FEC, which oversees and enforces federal election laws, "undermined the McCain-Feingold law by narrowing the scope of the ban on soft money that is at the heart of the reform bill." In a blistering attack on the commission, McCain said the agency "has taken upon itself the task of rewriting" the law. But in his first extensive interview since the FEC issued those rules, Mason rejected that criticism.

"The sponsors of the bill wanted more, but I think we did a good job on the rules. When there are a lot of ambiguities in the legislation, that's the normal process of what the FEC does," Mason said.

As for the stinging criticism from McCain and his allies, Mason said, "I'm a pretty big boy. I can handle that." Congress has 60 days to reject the FEC's rules, but Mason said, "I don't expect Congress to do anything to them." The FEC still has to hand down rules governing the remaining five parts of the law, which will take effect Nov. 6. Mason said he expects the commission will not finish its work until the end of the year. …