The Bipartisan Campaign Finance Act of
2002 is now law, due to the persistent efforts of its sponsors,
Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.),
and Representatives Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin
D. Meehan (D-Mass.). They and others who voted for the bill
deserve our thanks. Our democracy will be the stronger for
this reform bill.
The bill represents a 10-year struggle. In 1992, President George
H.W. Bush vetoed a similar reform bill. After surviving compromises and filibusters,
the 2002 version was signed into law by son George W. Bush on March 27.
What will change and does it matter?
The Bill’s Main Provisions
For the 2000 campaigns, the Federal Election Commission reports
that Republicans and Democrats raised a total of $1.2 billion, double what
they raised in the ’98 election and 37 percent more than ’96, the previous presidential
race. That means the 2000 elections were the most expensive in U.S. history.
The new law takes effect November 6, 2002, so this fall’s election
will be conducted under the old rules. It will be big money’s last hurrah, with
the congressional power balance at stake.
Thereafter, the new bill will do the following:
ban “soft-money” (unreported) contributions to the national political
parties. They have come mainly from labor unions and corporations like AT&T
and Philip Morris.
increase the “hard-money” limits for individual contributions
to candidates per election from $1,000 to $2,000, but keep the current limit
of $5,000 for contributions to political action committees (PACs). There will
be slight increases on the limits for contributions to the national parties
and doubled allowances for state or local party committees per year.
restrict the ability of corporations (including nonprofits) and
unions to run “electioneering” ads featuring names and/or likenesses of candidates
within 30 days of a primary and 60 days of a general election.
On the Positive Side
The fact is that elections in this country cost huge sums of
money, primarily because of TV advertising. That means we generally wind up
with legislators who are independently wealthy or well-financed by others. Some
cynics say we have the best government money can buy. Those who accept contributions
naturally feel beholden to the givers and can slant legislation to benefit them.
The recent Enron collapse is a case in point. Common Cause alleges
that Enron and its affiliates, who gave more than $2 million in soft-money
contributions during the 2000 election, received special treatment on Capitol
Hill. Politicians deny that, but definitely the energy conglomerate had input
in 2001 into Vice President Dick Cheney’s national energy policy.
A former Reagan administration official (Charles Bowsher) admits
that what Enron’s contributions bought was no federal oversight. And
that hurt thousands of employees and stockholders.
Will this bill “return power to the people”? Not necessarily. Corporations
and unions will and should have a say in politics. But this law diminishes their
influence. It changes the way political money is raised and spent.
Thomas E. Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, writing
in the March 25 Christian Science Monitor, says, “National party committees
and elected officials will no longer be able to receive or shake down mega-contributions
from corporations, unions and individuals....no funds from corporate or union
treasuries, only from their voluntary political action committees, reasonable
limits on the size of contributions to candidates and parties, and no sleight-of-hand
transfers among national and state parties to undermine legal limits and muddle
disclosure. This will reinsert some much-needed space between big-interested
money and public-policy decisions.”
Perhaps there will be a shift from attack-oriented TV advertising
to more grass-roots campaign activity.
There could be a real increase in competition in congressional races.
Threat to the First Amendment?
Odd coalitions emerged on this bill. Right to Life aligned
with the National Rifle Association. And the League of Women Voters ended up
opposed to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Granted that the law is intended to limit how far money can talk,
does it also curtail the robust free speech needed in a democracy? The ACLU
is convinced that the campaign finance reform bill stifles issue advocacy.
Would the NAACP’s ads—financed by a sole anonymous donor in 2000—highlighting
Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s failure to endorse laws against hate crimes be allowed
next year? Would New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s record on police brutality be
broadcast as it was in his 2000 Senate race?
These are serious questions. A federal lawsuit has already been
filed, which is undoubtedly headed for the Supreme Court.
The next logical step in the reform is to require TV to provide
some free airtime—since the public (in theory at least) owns the airwaves.
Even if this bill doesn’t go far enough and the Supreme Court strikes
down some of its provisions, reform was long overdue. Our confidence in our
political system and our very freedom in voting are at stake. Money talks, but
it shouldn’t be allowed to talk so loudly that it drowns out other voices.B.B.