McCain-Feingold sidesteps real needs for reform
March 22, 2001
For campaign-finance reform to promote democracy, political power must shift away from money and toward average citizens.
But the current debate in Congress may result in exactly the opposite.
The McCain-Feingold bill, which attempts to ban unregulated donations to political parties -- also known as soft money -- affects less than 20 percent of campaign contributions. Hard money -- direct contributions to candidates that may be used any way the candidate desires -- made up nearly 80 percent of contributions during the 2000 election, according to Common Cause.
Only a tiny sliver of Americans makes major political investments. Center for Responsive Politics statistics revealed that only one-quarter of 1 percent of the American population contributed $200 or more in hard money in the 1996 elections -- just one-tenth of the $2000 maximum currently allowed per candidate per election cycle. Yet both President Bush and Al Gore acquired about 75 percent of their funds from donors of $1000 or more.
The McCain-Feingold bill does not solve this problem; it makes it worse. An amendment passed this week by the Senate will lift the amount an individual can contribute to as much as $6,000 from the old limit of $1,000 if a candidate is running against a multimillionaire who is spending lavishly. Other amendments to raise the limits are in the offing.
What's going on here is political poker. While the race for soft money was a dead heat between the two major parties last year, Republicans dominated hard-money contributions. Republicans raised $447 million in hard money to the Democrats' $270 million, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Republicans know that raising the cap on hard money is a "poison pill" Democrats would be foolish to swallow. So by tying soft-money reform to a hard-money increase, Republicans hope to pin blame on Democrats for "defeating reform."
Those who give the big bucks get political access that few other citizens enjoy. Fifty-four percent of large hard-money donors said they had spoken to a federal official personally within the last year, according to a July 2000 poll by Lake, Snell, Perry and Associates, a political research firm. A similar poll conducted during the 1996 elections showed that 76 percent of hard-money donors said "influencing policy/government" was a "very important" reason for their contribution.
The current cost of waging a successful congressional or presidential bid virtually requires candidates to bank on big-money donors (or a personal fortune). Qualified challengers unwilling to make this compromise are doomed to near-invisibility. These are hard-money issues that the McCain-Feingold bill won't touch.
Even if McCain-Feingold didn't raise the ceiling on individual contributions, the bill would delude many Americans into believing we have solved a problem. But merely tweaking the existing system doesn't rid us of the perversely undemocratic system that equates money with speech.
Effective reform requires addressing the whole rather than mere parts of a sick system that equates campaign contributions with political speech. We must focus on overturning that premise, created in the 1976 Buckley vs. Valeo U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared campaign spending a form of free speech, while authorizing some limits on political donations.
Attaining democracy requires that we ensure the public accountability of our system. We need to demand a clear separation of genuine "speech" -- expressing one's opinion -- from the spending of money to amplify one's speech above that of others'. Only then will we shift political power from moneyed interests back to American citizens.
A government of, by, and for the people will occur only if the people repossess it.
Jennifer Rockne is the assistant director of ReclaimDemocracy.org, dedicated to revoking corporate power over civic society. She can be reached at email@example.com.