The New Reform Battlefield

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

March 24, 2002

The victory for campaign finance reform in the Senate last week is not the beginning of the end in the struggle to clean up political campaigns. But it is the end of the beginning.

Passage of a bill banning unregulated soft money from political campaigns was an essential step toward righting a system that went off the rails in the 1990s. The bill plugs the largest loopholes in a law that had become all loopholes and no law. Now, at least, the rules that served the political system reasonably well in the late 1970s and ’80s can be enforced again. But the Senate’s action and President Bush’s pledge to sign the bill simply move the struggle for clean elections to new battlefields, including the courts.

Enemies of the legislation—carefully drafted and redrafted over years by Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold and Reps. Christopher Shays and Marty Meehan—speak cavalierly as if its unconstitutionality is obvious.

What’s obvious is that the bill is constitutional.

Unlike earlier efforts at campaign reform, this legislation was drafted with a close eye to past Supreme Court decisions ratifying Congress’ right to regulate political money. The court has made clear that limits on campaign contributions are constitutional because they are designed to curb the corruption that is inevitable when money plays too large a role in the calculations of politicians.

That’s exactly what banning unregulated soft money that has flowed into the process is designed to do. Soft money was never envisioned when Congress passed existing contribution limits after the Watergate scandals. It came in only through flawed rulings from the Federal Elections Commission. By opening this loophole, the FEC gave parties and candidates license to gut campaign laws the courts have already said were constitutional.

Equally constitutional is a provision to regulate those fake “issue ads” in the 60 days before an election and the 30 days before a primary. These ads are rarely about issues. They usually attack candidates in personal terms that have nothing to do with issues. As in: “Call Senator Snodgrass and tell him you’re sick and tired of his corruption, selfishness and stupidity.”

And here’s what’s important: The bill doesn’t even ban these ads. It simply says that if groups want to run them in the days before an election, they have to live by the same rules—involving full disclosure and contribution limits—that apply to candidates and to organizations openly trying to influence the outcome. This loophole-closer puts Senator Snodgrass, his opponents and the outside groups on the same footing.

And then comes the hardest part: moving beyond this victory to changes that would encourage candidates to free themselves from the chase for big campaign contributions.

A tax credit for political donations would be a good way to encourage small contributions. What if every citizen knew he or she could give $ 50 to a candidate or political group and get the money back against income or payroll taxes? Politicians and political organizations would then have a major incentive to go after small money and not just the big checks. This could democratize the fund raising.

Free or much cheaper television time for candidates—the cost to local stations might be covered through tax breaks—could drastically reduce the need for big fund raising, as would free or cheaper mail. And McCain-Feingold requires a study of the “Clean Elections” initiatives, now operating in Arizona and Maine, that give candidates financial incentives to opt out of the money chase.

All this is now possible. Now, Feingold says, his side’s activists know it can be done, and “it’s going to lead to much more significant reform in the long run.”

That may be optimistic. But without optimism, this initial breakthrough would never have happened.