process. They were making an investment. Many of Campaign Finance Reform them were hoping that their contribution would pay off in the form of a policy decision or a bill endorsement at WHAT’S THE ISSUE? some later date. Supporters of reform say soft money made large contributors indispensable to the political It’s no secret that the cost of running for office is rising. parties and reduced the power of the broader electorate. The total price of the 2000 congressional and presidential elections was almost $3 billion, up from $2.2 The parties used soft money to help pay for critical voter- billion in 1996 and $1.8 billion in 1992. All indications are registration campaigns, get-out-the-vote drives, and the that the cost of the 2004 elections will far exceed the all-important "issue ads". But donors didn't have to give amount spent in 2000. TV ads, political consultants, and their money to their party of choice to influence an other major sources of campaign spending have driven election. They could spend it themselves -- or give it to up the cost of running for office, and there are no signs an interest group to spend -- on "issue ads" of their own. of a slowdown in the fast-rising need for campaign cash Chances are, you've seen hundreds of these ads around among candidates and parties. election time. In competitive races, spending on issue ads can approach, or even exceed, spending by the Critics of the current campaign finance system fear that candidates themselves. the growing amount of money pouring into elections is having a corrupting influence on politics. The more The University of Pennsylvania's Annenburg Public money that is involved in running for office, critics say, Policy Center and the University of Wisconsin-Madison the more influence that donors – wealthy individuals, have documented the dramatic rise in issue advocacy. In companies, labor unions, interest groups – have over response to these concerns, the McCain-Feingold bill elected officials and public policy. These concerns gave banned ads within 60 days of a general election that are rise to several campaign finance bills, the most paid for by outside groups and identify a particular prominent of which was the McCain-Feingold bill – candidate. Additionally, the legislation required groups named for its primary sponsors, Sens. John McCain (R- spending more than $10,000 a year on TV ads to Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) – which would disclose who paid for them. reform the campaign finance system and seek to reduce the influence of money in the electoral process. HOW THE INTEREST GROUPS SEE IT The crux of the McCain-Feingold bill was a ban on soft They say that politics makes strange bedfellows, and money -- unlimited contributions to the national political campaign finance reform is no exception. An odd parties for "party-building" activities. The bill also placed coalition of liberal groups, including the AFL-CIO and the restrictions on outside groups airing so-called "issue American Civil Liberties Union, and conservative groups, ads" that tout or criticize a candidate's position on an such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the issue, but refrain from explicitly telling viewers to vote for Christian Coalition, fought the provision in McCain- or against that candidate. Feingold prohibiting issue ads funded by outside groups in the final days of a campaign. They feel that the After vigorous debate in the House and Senate, provision infringes on their rights to free speech and their Congress passed the McCain-Feingold bill. President ability to weigh in on elections. Bush signed the bill into law in March 2002. Campaign finance reform groups including Common HOW IT MAY AFFECT YOU Cause, Democracy 21, Public Citizen, and the Brennan Center for Justice feel that the McCain-Feingold bill was During the debate over McCain-Feingold, supporters necessary to salvage a political system in which the and opponents alike knew that a ban on soft money concerns of voters have been usurped by the money would have a significant impact on the campaign finance and influence of powerful industries and interest groups. system. After all, the Democratic and Republican parties Although none of the reform groups saw McCain- raised nearly half a billion dollars in soft money for the Feingold as a perfect bill, they were united in their belief 2000 and 2002 elections. Because it could be given in that the bill is a necessary start down the road of unlimited amounts of $100,000, $250,000, or more, soft campaign finance reform. money allowed corporations, labor unions, and wealthy individuals to wield tremendous influence over the political process -- much more influence than the average voter. With their generous contributions, soft money donors were doing more than supporting the democratic HOW IT ALL BEGAN Congress in 1971 passed the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), a consolidation of previous reform efforts that limited the influence of wealthy individuals and special interests on the outcome of federal elections, regulated campaign spending, and mandated public disclosure of campaign finances by candidates and parties. Congress amended the FECA in 1974 in response to the Watergate scandal to set limits on contributions by individuals, political parties and political action committees (PACs). These amendments also established an independent agency – the Federal Election Commission (FEC) – to enforce the law, facilitate disclosure, and administer the public funding program of presidential campaigns. Congress made further amendments to the FECA in 1976, following the Supreme Court case of Buckley v. Valeo, and in 1979. By most accounts, federal campaign finance laws have not achieved their desired goal of limiting the influence of well-funded special interests and deep-pocketed individuals on elections. Political parties and outside groups have taken advantage of loopholes in the law – soft money being among the biggest of them – in ways that reformers say have all but eviscerated the campaign finance system of its ability to control the flow of money. THE MONEY With most issues, a discussion of money would examine where the special interests stand on a given issue, and how they have used campaign contributions to bolster support among elected officials for their position. In the case of campaign finance reform, of course, money is the issue. The Center prepared a report on the political parties' reliance on soft money prior to arguments about the McCain-Feingold law's constitutionality in the U.S. Supreme Court. THE ISSUE IN CONGRESS AND THE COURTS The McCain-Feingold bill passed the Senate and the House, and was signed into law by President Bush in March 2002. Read about the McCain-Feingold debate in our Tracking the Payback section. Opponents of the bill challenged its constitutionality in court. Arguments were first heard before a special federal panel, which ruled some parts of the law unconstitutional. The panel then stayed its own ruling until the U.S. Supreme Court decided on the law. In December 2003, the Supreme Court upheld all of the law's major provisions.
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