How Campaign Finance Reform Changes Everything

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Next week, Majority Leader Tom Daschle will begin the war to get campaign finance reform through the Senate. His goal is to pass the same campaign finance bill the House approved last week by a 240-189 margin so the two chambers don't have to go into a House-Senate conference to resolve language differences. In past conferences, the Republicans have been able to stall the bill forever and they'll do it again if they have the chance. GOP senators will likely try to filibuster the measure in their chamber, so Daschle is now busy behind the scenes collecting the 60 votes he needs to break the filibuster and send the measure to George Bush's desk. Bush, who has opposed the campaign reform his old primary rival John McCain has sponsored, has signaled that he'll now sign the bill.

If Bush signs campaign finance reform into law, it could have a profound effect on American politics. The bill would ban the national parties from collecting the unlimited and unregulated donations known as "soft money." In the 2000 election, Republicans and Democrats raked in about a half billion dollars in soft money. Under the new bill, big dollars will still talk in political campaigns. The measure raises the amount of "hard money" that can be given to specific candidates, even though it's subject to more regulation and individual limits. But choking off hundreds of millions of unregulated soft dollars that poured into the Republican and Democratic parties to buy influence will certainly be a welcome reform.

The campaign finance reform bill will also cause power shifts in the American political system. For starters "it will roll things back to the type of campaign finance system that was always intended before the advent of soft money," explains Anthony Corrado, a Colby College professor who's written extensively on the history of campaign finance reform. Because they can't simply donate huge sums to the two parties, corporations, labor unions and multi-millionaires will now have a more difficult time buying unlimited influence.

Second, the legislation would "encourage a shift away from the emphasis on television advertising that we've seen in the last two election cycles," Corrado believes. The millions of dollars in unregulated soft money enabled the two parties to spend lavishly on TV. They won't able to do as much of that under the new regulations, which also ban sham "issue" ads being broadcast on TV or radio just before an election, whose real purpose is to attack a candidate. But the bill allows corporations, labor unions and especially special interest groups to pump practically all the money they want into grass-roots activities, such as get-out-the-vote drives or direct mail. So grass-roots organizers, not TV ad bookers, could be in hot demand.

Third, power could shift from the national parties to special interest groups like the National Rifle Association on the right or the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League on the left. That's because the bill has less restrictions on the activities of independent groups than it does on the parties.

Finally, the bill could result in the power of the national parties draining into the state parties. State parties can still spend unlimited amounts of soft money in elections during odd-numbered years when no federal races are being run. During the even numbered years when there are federal elections, a loophole in the bill allows individuals to contribute up to $10,000 in soft dollars to state parties. With the national accounts dried up, political dollars may turn to state party accounts to buy influence.

It'll take a number of years for the politicians and moneymen to understand and adapt to all these power shifts. Along the way, you can bet on them looking for loopholes to exploit.

A footnote on the upcoming congressional races: Can George Bush, whose approval numbers now hover around 80%, keep his party from losing control of the House in November's elections? Democrats, who are within six seats of taking it back, hope not and are encouraged by a focus group one of their pollsters conducted during Bush's State of the Union address last month. Before Bush delivered his stirring speech, 50 swing voters from the Denver area were asked whether they'd vote for a Republican or Democratic congressmen in the next election. They were asked the same question afterwards and the percentages picking Democrat, Republican or undecided didn't change. "He doesn't have a lot of coattail," concludes a senior House Democratic aide. "But we've got to be delicate because the president is still wrapped in the flag." In the two dozen hotly contested House races that'll determine whether Democrats succeed, other polls show the swing voters would still carve Bush's face on Mount Rushmore for his handling of the war.