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Jewish World Review April 10, 2001 / 17 Nissan 5761

Morton Kondracke

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Consumer Reports

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 hard-money gifts.

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 their enemies.

In the Democratic Party, McCain-Feingold likely will enhance the power of labor unions, trial lawyers and major feminist and environmental groups.

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 year.

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 each.

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 boost.

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 try, though.

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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