Time to Restore Trust in our Campaign System

Trevor Potter
Trevor Potter Former Brookings Expert, Attorney - Caplin & Drysdale, Founding President; General Counsel - Campaign Legal Center

July 12, 2001

Congress passed the last major campaign-finance reform in 1974, in the wake of Watergate. Today, the House of Representatives will vote on another reform bill, known as Shays-Meehan.

The current ills may have different names—”soft money,” “issue advocacy,” selling the Lincoln bedroom – but the complaint is the same as in 1974: Large contributors and their money appear to have too much sway over our government decisionmaking process.

Does this mean reform is hopeless? No, it just means that no law is a permanent fix, and every reform will have to be strengthened over time. After all, Congress banned corporate money in federal elections in 1907. By 1971, no one took the ban seriously, until several CEOs were convicted of secretly contributing corporate money to President Nixon’s reelection campaign. After that, and the 1974 reforms, no one gave corporate money to federal candidates for years—until soft money (funds given to political parties under the fiction that they won’t be used in federal elections) took hold.

Now reformers are trying to restore the old prohibitions—no corporate or labor money in federal elections, and no unlimited individual contributions to federal candidates or parties.

The reform that passed the Senate this year, the McCain-Feingold-Cochran bill, banned soft money to national political parties and prohibited state parties from using it in federal elections. It also prohibited corporations and labor unions from using their money to target TV ads about federal candidates in their districts in the days before an election, and requires that others who run such ads disclose their spending.

Both parties have grown used to the virtually unlimited flow of soft money used by the national parties to pay for television ads, consultants, pollsters, buildings, and travel to resorts. So it’s no surprise that the people who spend this money—and some who give it—are loath to get off the gravy train.

Some members of Congress go further and claim the system is necessary to finance vital party activities like voter registration and turnout. This is a true distortion of reality. Voter turnout was higher in the mid-’70s and the ’80s when contributions were strictly limited. Further, the amount of soft money spent today by the national parties on voter registration and get-out-the-vote-activity is quite small. Let’s clean up the system, and boost public confidence. That might really improve turnout!

Opponents of reform also claim that the principal provisions of the McCain-Feingold/Shays-Meehan bills are unconstitutional. Earlier this year, a letter signed by every one of the Amercian Civil Liberties Union’s past presidents and senior officials supported the constitutionality of the Senate bill.

Just this past month, a Supreme Court decision in a Colorado case demonstrated that the court has a clear understanding of the dangers posed by large contributions to political parties from special interests.

No one can predict how the Supreme Court would rule on every provision of a new campaign-finance law. However, the two key parts of reform—banning soft money in federal elections and a ban on corporate and labor advertising in federal elections—are fully consistent with high court precedents of many years standing.

In the Buckley v. Valeo case in 1976, the court upheld the constitutionality of limits on contributions to political parties, because they protect against “the actuality and appearance of corruption.”

Finally, House opponents of real campaign-finance reform hope that the public can be fooled into thinking that any bill labeled reform does the trick—without a look at the contents. The House leadership is now supporting the Ney-Wynn bill, which does virtually nothing to limit soft money, but greatly increases the hard money contributions to political parties.

Under Ney, someone could give the six Republican and Democratic national party committees a total of $ 450,000 per year, and anything above that could be raised without limit by the president or House and Senate leaders for state parties. Those state parties could then spend the money on the same ads featuring federal candidates that they do now. Some soft money ban! Meanwhile, the annual limit on contributions of “hard” (federal) money to the national committees goes from $ 25,000 a year to $ 90,000 a year, per person. The Ney bill may be many things, but a compromise reform measure it is not.

The House has an opportunity today to take a stand against the cynicism that our current system generates. Let’s hope the members will stand up and be counted.

Trevor Potter is former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, and the director and general counsel of the Reform Institute.