Is campaign finance reform a threat to political parties? Or to one political party in particular?
Sen. John Breaux’s (D-La.) unusually blunt assessment that a ban on soft money (funds not subject to limits on sources or amounts) would put the Democratic Party at a strategic electoral disadvantage crystallized a growing concern among Democrats as debate began in the Senate on the McCain-Feingold bill.
Democratic argument joined a Republican-led, though largely bipartisan, assertion that the legislation would weaken political parties relative to interest groups operating outside the reach of federal election law. Indeed, a defense of political parties is running a close second to free-speech protection as the argument of choice for those hoping to derail this latest effort to restore some measure of credibility to campaign finance regulation.
Like the vast majority of political scientists, I have a professional fondness for political parties, based on the indispensable role they play in aggregating public preferences, organizing elected representatives and providing a critical means of democratic accountability.
Reform that weakens parties would be worse than no reform at all. And finance proposals that clearly favor one party over the other should be dismissed out of hand.
Yet neither assertion holds up under careful scrutiny. Measures to wean political parties of soft money and to bring candidate-specific electioneering issue ads under federal regulation would most assuredly alter the fundraising and campaigning strategies of the parties.
However, these changes bode well for the parties and for American democracy more broadly. A few well-crafted amendments to the McCain-Feingold bill would increase the likelihood of a salutary effect.
It is indisputably true that the national political parties now rely heavily on soft money. Between the 1991-1992 and 1999-2000 election cycles, hard-money fundraising by the parties increased 70 percent (from $421.8 million to $717.2 million), while soft-money revenues skyrocketed 466 percent (from $86.2 million to $487.5 million).
The market for party soft money was transformed when (thanks to Bill Clinton and Dick Morris) the parties discovered they could use the cover of issue advocacy to finance broadcast ads for their candidates outside the reach of federal regulation.
Since then the parties, especially the Congressional campaign committees, have geared their fundraising activities toward garnering large donations from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals, with the active participation of party leaders in both the House and Senate.
These practices undermine long-standing statutory prohibitions on corporate and union contributions to federal campaigns and raise troubling questions about the abuse of public authority and conflicts of interests between policymakers and private donors.
The irony is that our parties now engage in relatively less party-building activities and facilitate rather than dilute linkages between large contributors and elected officials. The lion’s share of party soft money is used for candidate-specific television ads and direct mail in highly targeted races.
The party campaign committees have become instruments of incumbent officeholders to launder large contributions that would otherwise be illegal and channel these resources to a handful of highly competitive campaigns. The communications are overwhelmingly attack oriented, bereft of issue content and utterly silent on the party affiliation of the candidate.
There isn’t even a pretense of party building or generic party advertising in the majority of districts and states that are dismissed as non-competitive. The only game in town for the parties is raising and steering resources to the targeted few to hold or gain majority control. And that requires pressuring and courting those with the resources to give in very large denominations.
Parties could thrive in a post-soft-money world. Federal election law already gives them an advantage in raising money and assisting their candidates through substantial coordinated expenditures.
Raising existing ceilings on contributions to parties and on coordinated spending by them would provide ample room for parties to flourish without the demeaning, potentially corrupting and agenda-altering scramble to raise soft money. And a new, more realistic bright-lines test for distinguishing genuine issue advocacy from electioneering would keep the parties from fearing they will lose ground to outside interest groups.
As for Breaux and his fellow Democrats, they should think long and hard before betting their future on soft money. Although their party campaign committees made tremendous headway in raising soft money in the 2000 election cycle, they may find the going tougher without having an enthusiastic chief fundraiser in the White House.
Moreover, their disadvantage in hard-money raising relative to the Republicans is far from insurmountable, especially if contribution limits are raised and the parties direct their energies to playing within the rules rather than eviscerating them.
Thomas Mann is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-editor of the Campaign Finance Reform Sourcebook.