Campaign Finance Reform Outlook

Melinda Penkava: Thanks for joining us. I’m Melinda Penkava sitting in for Diane Rehm. More than six years ago, Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold began the push to reform laws regulating campaign contributions. Today, their vision has become a reality. That was signed into law recently. But some believe the law is unconstitutional. Others say that political donors, party committees, and politicians will still find ways around these new restrictions. Joining us this hour to talk about the ins and outs of the new law and how it may shake up politics are Tom Mann, Senior Fellow in Governmental Studies at the Brookings Institution, and Jan Baran, who is a legal specialist in campaign finance and a former general counsel for the Republican National Committee. Also, he is one of a half dozen rather prominent attorneys who is going to challenge the law in the courts on behalf of Mitch McConnell. And if you would like to join us, please do give us a call here at the Diane Rehm Show. Now, first of all, Thomas Mann, you’re saying this is a first step, the campaign finance bill that was passed. What do you envision having to happen down the road from now?

Thomas Mann: Well, in the short term of course Jan and Senator McConnell and others are going to challenge the constitutionality of the law in the courts. The Federal Elections Commission has a lot of work ahead of it, issuing regulations, revising forms and informing the regulated community. But on the reform agenda itself, I think the next stage really goes to such matters as improving enforcement at the Federal Elections Commission, of seeking ways of reducing the cost of campaigning. I’m thinking, free or subsidized mailings and televisions, tax credits for small contributions. No one imagines that this bill will revolutionize political financing. The goals are rather modest. It’s to return to the status quo ante of the early 1980s. It’s trying to get us back where we were when the Federal Elections Campaign Act was working reasonably well before the emergence of large party soft money and election-oriented issue advocacy made a joke out of the laws that were on the books. So this is a repair job, only a prerequisite to moving ahead with other reforms.

Melinda Penkava: Jan Baran, you’re smiling, almost laughing here. You don’t look back so fondly at the early 1980s, sir?

Jan Baran: Well, I was around at that time and I do remember that there was pressure to raise money and people were ranting and raving against Political Action Committees, which now are seen as actually a healthy component of our campaign finance system because it does involve hard money. But Tom’s point, I think, is just a little off the mark in my opinion in the sense that this law, when it was a bill, was promoted as a major reform in that its intent was to drive out money from our political process and in fact that’s what it does. I mean, it eliminates half a billion dollars in funding from our two major political parties.

Melinda Penkava: And what’s wrong with that?

Jan Baran: Well, what it does is that it eliminates an awful lot of campaign speech and a lot of campaign activity and a lot of debate about issues and our candidates and public policy, and the question that’s going to come before the court is whether these reforms went too far and it’s going to be a very complex piece of litigation because this bill is 91 pages long, it is packed with all kinds of regulations and restrictions, and it is a very serious and pervasive attempt to reorder politics in this country and it does so in very significant ways, so I don’t see it as a modest first step, it’s a very important and very major first step.

Melinda Penkava: Tom Mann?

Thomas Mann: Melinda, I think some of the critics overlook a very important change in the agenda of reform and in the rhetoric of reform over the last couple of years. I’ve never talked about driving money out of politics, I never attacked political action committees, and in fact if you look to see what’s happened in the reform community, much of that hyperbole has given way to a new pragmatism. The idea is not to drive that half a billion dollars of soft money out of politics, it is rather to relieve the private sector of the kind of heavy-handed near-extortion by party and public officials for six and seven figure contributions. (Listen to complete interview 2 hours)