Soft Money/Soft Heads?

If you think that “soft” money is made of paper and “hard” money is made of metal, think again. Financing in American political campaigns involves money spent on direct contributions (hard money) to candidates running for federal offices and those made indirectly (soft money) to support campaigns. The latter are the subject of one of the longest running and most acrimonious debates in recent years in Congress.

Both parties and political action committees (PAC’s) used soft money contributions extensively in the 2000 election to support their respective candidates by running so-called issue-oriented TV commercials, which is where most of the soft money was spent.

The campaign finance legislation has made a national figure of Senator John McCain and after several years of contention may have reached its crescendo on Valentine’s Day when the House voted to adopt a bill which was nearly identical to that adopted last year in the Senate. Although a filibuster is promised in the Senate, there is probably a better than even chance that the House version of the bill will pass. The President, whose signals on this are a bit mixed, is likely to sign the bill because of enormous political pressure; it is said that he opposes the bill but has made it clear to Members of Congress that if the bill is ultimately adopted in both Houses, it would be very difficult for him to veto it.

Soft money contributions in the 2000 Bush/Gore campaign exceeded $160 million ($62.7 million to the Democrats and $97.4 million to the Republicans). While there are severe hard money contribution limitations ($1,000 per person, per election to any one candidate), there are none on soft money contributions by individuals. Given these limitations, large donors simply gave to either the national parties or PAC’s. (Note that corporations and labor unions may not contribute hard or soft money directly to candidates, parties, or PAC’s.) When the phone rings at a party headquarters and someone offers to donate a couple of hundred thousand dollars, you can bet that the donor’s suggestion as to how it might be spent (TV commercials for candidate “X,” for example) will be taken seriously.

So, more than ever, a plague that is the excessive influence of money in politics, has pretty much gotten out of hand, and it is not confined to either party. If you happen to be a candidate for federal office, and you are approached at a fund-raiser by someone offering $250,000 to your party, you are not likely to ignore that donor’s phone call two years later as he pleads for passage or defeat of certain legislation or regulation. That a successful candidate remembers those who helped elect him is a normal human reaction and not per se evil.

But what is thought to be injurious is that a handful of very wealthy people might “buy” legislation or executive policy in a way that may be contrary to the best interests of the general public; in other words, by removing the opportunity for large donations, it is hoped we would also reduce the ability to influence policy with dollars. This problem has always been endemic in democracies, but in the past decade the abuses seem to have escalated in an almost geometric progression. This is what campaign finance reform is about. (In the Senate the bill has been called “McCain/Feingold” while in the House it is “Shays/Meehan” to reflect its principal sponsors.)

Without dwelling in detail, the bill would forbid soft money contributions to national political parties and PAC’s and limit to $10,000 per election contributions to individual state political parties (so that theoretically a single donor could still make up to $500,000 in soft money contributions per election by donating to each state’s Democratic or Republic party – a “loophole” which has drawn much criticism). Hard money contributions would be increased to $2,000 per election, per candidate, per person.

Another major provision would proscribe any PAC or other groups (such as labor unions, corporations, or industry support groups) from running TV ads (but, curiously enough, not print ads) that favor a candidate within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. The constitutionality of this provision as an unlawful limitation on free speech has been widely questioned by people at all points of the political spectrum (including the American Civil Liberties Union which is generally associated with left-wing causes).

The irony is that while many more Democrats than Republicans in Congress support the bill, the feeling is that, at least in the 2004 presidential campaign, President Bush would come out far ahead of the Democratic candidate in fund raising; if the pending bill is adopted. Under the Federal Election Code a candidate for President may accept a certain amount of federal funds in lieu of private contributions (hard money). If the past election is any guide, President Bush would not accept federal funding because he was very successful in raising hard money; it is assumed that as President he would be even more successful. In the meantime, the Democratic candidate in 2004 would probably be forced to accept the federal funding which will almost certainly be substantially less than what the President will raise.

But then, logic has never been the long-suit in American politics!

— Ken Butera

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