So How Do You Like McCain-Feingold Now, Mac?

How’s this for irony?

“The nation’s top federal election official told Sen. John McCain yesterday that he cannot immediately withdraw from the presidential public financing system as he had requested, a decision that threatens to dramatically restrict his spending until the general election campaign begins in the fall.

…But McCain’s attempts to build up his campaign coffers before a general election contest appeared to be threatened by the stern warning yesterday from Federal Election Commission Chairman David M. Mason, a Republican. Mason notified McCain that the commission had not granted his Feb. 6 request to withdraw from the presidential public financing system.

…By signing up for matching money, McCain agreed to adhere to strict state-by-state spending limits and an overall limit on spending of $54 million for the primary season, which lasts until the party’s nominating convention in September. The general election has a separate public financing arrangement.

…But after McCain won a series of early contests and the campaign found its financial footing, his lawyer wrote to the FEC requesting to back out of the program — which is permitted for candidates who have not yet received any federal money and who have not used the promise of federal funding as collateral for borrowing money.

Mason’s letter raises two issues as the basis for his position. One is that the six-member commission lacks a quorum, with four vacancies because of a Senate deadlock over President Bush’s nominees for the seats. Mason said the FEC would need to vote on McCain’s request to leave the system, which is not possible without a quorum. Until that can happen, the candidate will have to remain within the system, he said.

The second issue is more complicated. It involves a $1 million loan McCain obtained from a Bethesda bank in January. The bank was worried about his ability to repay the loan if he exited the federal financing program and started to lose in the primary race. McCain promised the bank that, if that happened, he would reapply for matching money and offer those as collateral for the loan. While McCain’s aides have argued that the campaign was careful to make sure that they technically complied with the rules, Mason indicated that the question needs further FEC review.

If the FEC refuses McCain’s request to leave the system, his campaign could be bound by a potentially debilitating spending limit until he formally accepts his party’s nomination. His campaign has already spent $49 million, federal reports show. Knowingly violating the spending limit is a criminal offense that could put McCain at risk of stiff fines and up to five years in prison.

…Trevor Potter, a former FEC chairman who is McCain’s top lawyer, immediately disputed the assertions in Mason’s letter, saying McCain has a constitutional right to exit the federal program. He also dismissed the letter as unenforceable because the FEC lacks a quorum to resolve the dispute.

…”This is serious,” agreed Republican election lawyer Jan Baran. Ignoring the matter on the grounds that the FEC lacks a quorum, Baran said, “is like saying you’re going to break into houses because the sheriff is out of town.” “

Here’s a guy who helped put together an anti-First Amendment campaign finance reform law that greatly harmed the Republican Party, and now, that very same law may put him in a position where he will have less money to spend between now and September than his most likely opponent can raise in a single month.

McCain is generating tepid support from Republicans, the conservative media doesn’t like him at all, his pals in the mainstream media have already turned on him, and he may end up in a position where he doesn’t have anywhere close to enough money to run a competitive campaign.

Let’s just say that McCain isn’t off to the best start in the world…

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