Jewish World Review April 10, 2001 / 17 Nissan 5761
McCain-Feingold: Mend it, don't end it
RATHER than either killing the Senate-passed campaign finance
reform bill or passing it intact, the House ought to try to
improve it, especially to help political parties.
Potential devices for doing so include permitting parties to
collect limited amounts of soft money for voter registration and
get-out-the-vote activities and providing tax credits for small
Roll Call contributing writer Norman Ornstein of the American
Enterprise Institute also suggests creating a "broadcast bank" -
air time that broadcast stations would be required to give
parties for their candidates.
Weakening of the political parties is perhaps the greatest
potential danger inherent in the McCain-Feingold bill passed by
the Senate - particularly if the bill's limit on independent "issue
advertising" is struck down by the courts.
McCain-Feingold's ban on soft money would cost the parties and
their Congressional campaign committees roughly 40 percent of
their revenue, much of which they currently spend on "issue
ads" that benefit their candidates.
If parties can't mount issue ads, but corporations, unions and
independent groups can, those special interests will have
greater relative influence on politics - and on the office-holders
they help elect.
Big corporate and organizational donors won't be able to
contribute millions in soft money to the parties, but will be able
to mount their own ad campaigns to help their friends and hurt
In the Democratic Party, McCain-Feingold likely will enhance the
power of labor unions, trial lawyers and major feminist and
The bill's Snowe-Jeffords section limits corporate and union
"electioneering" ads within 60 days of elections, and the Senate
passed an add-on amendment limiting ads by ideological groups;
however, these may not pass constitutional muster.
Even if they do, critics such as Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.)
contend that such interest groups will mount even more vitriolic
ads prior to the 60-day deadline than they do now so as to
demonize adversaries while they can.
According to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, interest
groups spent nearly $96 million on issue ads in the country's
1,300 major TV stations in 2000, compared with the $163 million
spent by the parties.
Under McCain-Feingold, the party ads would disappear while,
presumably, the special-interest ads would multiply.
The Senate did help the parties somewhat by doubling the limit
on hard-money contributions to candidates, who will have more
resources to fight the onslaught from special interests.
Last year candidate ads broadcast on the 1,300 stations cost
$334 million, outpacing both party and special-interest ads.
As backers of McCain-Feingold argue, the two-party system
survived quite nicely in the pre-soft-money era, when corporate
and union giving to candidates and parties was prohibited.
In 1992, for instance, the parties collected just $86 million in
soft money and $422 million in hard dollars. House and Senate
candidates collected another $617 million in hard money that
The upshot is that the parties will be hurt by the loss of soft
money - especially relative to interest groups - but they will
hardly be eliminated.
Both Republicans and Democrats believe that Democrats will
suffer more from the loss of soft money.
And it's true - not to mention ironic for the supposed party of
the average citizen - that Democrats raise a greater percentage
of their funds from big, unrestricted donors than Republicans do.
In 2000, Republican committees raised $447 million in hard
money compared with the Democrats' $270 million. The two
parties raised about equal amounts of soft money, $240 million
However, the hard-money totals fail to include in-kind
contributions from labor unions (especially volunteer hours and
member education), which probably at least make up the
difference between the parties.
Experts say, moreover, that the GOP spends more raising its
hard money by direct mail, so that the net hard money available
for each party is closer than gross receipts indicate.
And back in the days when Democrats ran Congress, their
candidates for the House and Senate were able to raise more
hard money for their campaigns than GOP candidates did. In
fact, in 2000, Democratic Senate candidates raised slightly more
than Republicans, and the election results show it.
So, in my opinion, McCain-Feingold is neither the end of the
world nor something that can't be improved. A broadcast bank
could bring down the cost of campaigns and give parties a
So could a separate hard-money limit for individual and PAC gifts
to parties as well as to candidates and a tax credit for small
donations to parties.
The Senate adopted an amendment permitting up to $10,000 in
soft-money contributions to state parties for voter registration
and turnout activities. The House could raise that limit.
Of course, neither Republicans nor Democrats much want to
improve McCain-Feingold. Republicans mainly want to find a way
to kill it.
Democrats hope - or say they hope - to pass the Senate bill
and keep it from a "killer conference." A better bill is worth a
JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.
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