Campaign finance reform a flop

Commentary





The McCain-Feingold Election Finance Reform bill that underwent so much debate in Congress has continued its controversial status since becoming law, Nov. 6, the day after the elections. The law, although taking steps towards substantial reform, fails to fulfill its mandate, according to reformers.

The law has three main parts: to ban all “soft money” from federal elections, to treat special interest group “issue ads” in favor of candidates as campaign ads, and to double the contribution limit for individuals. Lawsuits have been filed against two of these parts.

Progressive groups, like the AFL-CIO and the ACLU, and conservative groups, like the National Rifle Association and the Republican National Committee, are challenging the law’s ban on “soft money.” One group, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), is challenging the law’s increase of hard-money contributions.

Although both Democrats and Republicans received roughly the same amount of soft-money contributions, increases of hard-money contributions will likely give a disproportionate advantage to Republicans. In 1992, 1996 and 2000, the Republicans only received between $5 million and $25 million more than Democrats in soft money, while in the same years Republicans raised $100 million to $200 million more than Democrats in hard money.

Hard-money contributions therefore account for most of the Republican spending, while Democrats, who draw votes from the less wealthy classes of our population, rely on much less money from either hard or soft money contributions.

Hard-money contributions go directly to the candidates; the limit has been raised from $1,000 to $2,000. Soft money, which in the past has been completely unregulated and largely undeclared, is now banned completely. This effectively cuts the National Democratic Party’s budget by half, while only taking a third out of the Republicans’ much larger budget.

Little critism has been levied against the other major portion of the law: to treat special interest candidate ads as campaign ads rather than allowing them to be classified as issue ads. Issue ads are exempt from the restrictions that campaign ads face.

Campaign Finance reform has had a turbulent past. In 1971, Congress passed the first Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), consolidating previous reform efforts, mandating public disclosure of campaign financing, regulating campaign spending, and establishing the Federal Election Commission (FEC). In 1976 congress again made amendments to the Campaign finance law after the Supreme Court ruling in Duckly v. Valeo, and again in 1979.

The campaign finance system is still greatly lacking in basic fairness. Giant loopholes still exist, including the exemption of oil companies from any limitations of political donations. Meanwhile the price of running for office increases by nearly 100 percent every election cycle.

This latest law seems to leave the people much where they were before, stuck in a hard place and without a boat. In McCain-Feingold there is something for everyone to both love and hate – leaving us all fighting just to keep our political sanity afloat.

The author can be reached at bkishner@pww.org