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February 9, 2016

Did Soft Money Ban Kill Political Parties? | Rules of the Game

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling to overturn limits on aggregate campaign contributions has revived a long-running debate over the demise of the nation’s political parties, and what could bring them back to life.

In McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the high court may have done the parties a favor by eliminating the $123,200 cap on what individuals may give to candidates and parties as a group in one election cycle. Parties are now free to solicit much larger checks through so-called joint fundraising committees, a type of collective account that divvies up money between parties and candidates.

Watchdogs warn that such joint campaign funds will effectively bring back the unlimited soft money contributions to the parties that Congress banned in 2002, legislation best known as the McCain-Feingold law after its Senate authors. But conservatives hail the McCutcheon ruling as the first step toward repairing the damage that they say was done by that ban.

That law “has succeeded in profoundly altering the state of American politics by severely weakening American political parties to the benefit of outside spending groups who may raise and spend unlimited funds in connection with federal elections,” testified election lawyers Neil Reiff, a Democrat, and Donald McGahn, a Republican, before the Senate Rules and Administration Committee last week.

Reiff, the former deputy general counsel at the Democratic National Committee, and McGahn, a former FEC chairman, aren’t the only McCain-Feingold critics to vent their frustration with the soft money ban in recent weeks. If only Congress hadn’t outlawed soft money, the ban’s detractors imply, a host of political ills would never have come to pass.

It’s easy to see why party organizers and advocates of campaign finance deregulation chafe at the current regime. After all, if unrestricted super PACs and non-disclosing tax-exempt groups can spend millions in elections with no limits, why can’t the parties? A wave of commentary has enumerated the parties’ salutary role promoting robust competition, and moderating partisan polarization by appealing to the voters in the center.

But the parties’ demise goes way beyond McCain-Feingold. And eliminating the cap on “base” contributions to candidates and parties, which many conservatives now endorse, would not necessarily strengthen the parties. While the McCain-Feingold law put $591 million in soft money that the parties had raised in 2002 out of reach, they quickly made up for that loss. In the 2004 elections, the parties collected more in “hard” money subject to contribution limits — $1.5 billion — than they had in hard and soft money combined ($1.1 billion) before the ban took effect.

Outside spending did increase — the so-called 527 groups came that came into vogue following the ban boosted their receipts to $424 million, an increase of some $273 million, according to the Campaign Finance Institute. But the big non-party spending jump didn’t come until after the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling to deregulate independent campaign spending. In 2012, the first presidential race to follow that ruling, outside spending topped $1 billion.

If the parties had really spent their unrestricted money on get-out-the-vote activities and party building before the McCain-Feingold law took effect, soft money nostalgia might be more compelling. But a parade of former and current elected officials who defended that ban in court testified that the money was spent not on grass-roots activity or state and local elections, but on high-dollar ads; in 2000, 92 percent of those ads did not even identify the parties.

The former members of Congress testified that they “were expected to raise significant amounts of money for their party committees, were given incentives to do so, and could face sanctions if they did not.” They also detailed how party officials relied on lawmakers to net big donors and described “an inseverable link between the national political parties, their congressional fundraising committees and federal candidates.”

That real-world account contrasts sharply with the Supreme Court’s conclusion in McCutcheon that the parties act as a “buffer” that protects lawmakers from the corrupting influence of large contributions. Soft money gave the parties plenty of money to spend on ads, but it also gave them a black eye in the form of foreign money scandals, White House coffees and Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers.

Unrestricted money would strengthen the parties’ bottom line, but it may arguably weaken them institutionally in the long run. Parties succeed over time on the strength of their ideas, and on their ability to appeal to a broad base of voters, reflected materially in the support of small donors.

Notes former FEC chairman Trevor Potter, who heads the Campaign Legal Center and the political activity law practice at Caplin & Drysdale: “A couple of people writing big checks leaves you a hollowed-out party structure.”

Eliza Newlin Carney is a senior staff writer covering political money and election law for CQ Roll Call.

  • Charlene Weshley

    Predictable: Two low-IQ democrats ramble incoherently about complex, serious, fiscal matters:

    • Richard Fochtmann

      Pity you Charlene, like so many people left and right, are so partisan that you don’t realize that the whole political system revolves around money, money, money and politicians saying and doing nothing while the country suffers.

      The consequence of which is that most people, and especially the young, are exasperated with parties and politicians, and the media coverage of the horse-race rather than issues of import and consequence. Thus turned off to politics, in many cases they don’t even pay attention to politics, polls, et al, and IF they register to vote, they register “Unenrolled” in any party. In the end, the more disenfranchised and discouraged the average voter becomes, the less they participate and “democracy” is owned by the few – something they have been salivating about.

      It was thought that money alone was the issue, but limiting it proved that money was only part of the problem, and the rest of the problem was the failure of the 4th estate to accurately inform the public with facts rather than entertain it and give voice to the most extreme and obtuse opinions. Talking heads, like dissembling politicians, have diarrhea-of-the-mouth, making us all sick by association. Once the media started allowing athletes and others to give opinions on everything under the sun – foreign policy, economics, etc. – out of their area of sports expertise, it was all down hill from there.

      Now the Supremes give the few Uber-wealthy the opportunity to buy the most vain and “low-IQ” sycophants to do their bidding of wiping out the middle class and returning the vast majority of us to the status of Middle-Ages-type serfs, so that they can rape the planet and wallow in their palaces.

      Divisive bellyaching by the electorate rather than finding commonality with others is a sure way to let the country crumble. Parties worked when I was young and people came together to get problems solved and make the country better. Just look to the advances after WW2, when Republicans and Democrats worked together. Today with rampant individualism, backstabbing partisanship, and no one willing to listen and compromise with anyone else, the Fall of American Democracy is written on the wall.

      The future is up to young people, but they are so pessimistic, and the middle-aged are so disgruntled and bellicose, that I fear that the youth will turn to something brutal when they get angry. What a pity when American has the potential for such greatness. Unfortunately, I’ll probably not be around much longer, so I’ll not live to see how it all turns out.

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