At Long Last, Campaign Finance Reform

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John McCain talks about campaign finance with allies on Capitol Hill

Victory and vindication came at last for John McCain Wednesday when the Senate gave up and passed the sweeping campaign finance reform bill that had made it through the House last month. Now the measure goes on to the desk of President Bush, who during his election campaign opposed McCain's push to get the unregulated contributions known as "soft money" out of politics. Now, chastened by the public outcry over the Enron scandal and the perception that politicians might be for sale, Bush let it be known he wouldn't work against the bill's passage, and he's expected to sign it.

How will this change the political landscape? Power will shift from the national to state parties, for one thing, notes TIME congressional correspondent Douglas Waller. Television will become less important as the floods of unregulated funds dry up. And advocacy groups like the National Rifle Association and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League will see their influence increase.

The Rundown:
The Shays-Meehan bill bans "soft money" contributions to national political party committees, but permits contributions of up to $10,000 per donor per year to go to any state, county, or local party.

?The bill would also raise the limits on individual contributions to House and Senate candidates, from the current level of $1,000 per election to $2,000 per election.

?It also makes it illegal for labor unions, corporations or advocacy groups to broadcast issue ads during a 60-day period (30 days for a primary) prior to an election. That last bit is what the measure's opponents, let by Senator Mitch McConnell, are seizing on to challenge the Constitutionality of the bill; they say this violates free speech.

Supporters hope the bill will lessen the impact of massive contributions on political decisions by restricting the amount of "soft money" that companies or organizations can inject into the system, either directly to a party or candidate or through television or radio ads promoting their agenda. The move away from giant, unregulated donations is critical, reform advocates insist, for politicians anxious to regain the trust of the electorate.

The legislation's sponsors, including Sen. McCain, hail the passage as a step toward cleaning up a system polluted by big money. But not everyone is quite so optimistic; some politicos doubt whether the new laws will do much to pare political contributions, theorizing that serious donors will simply find new avenues for their cash. And others fear the changes will only reinforce the power of incumbents by drying up challengers' primary source of funding: the Republican and Democratic National Committees. And, as with every law, there are ways around it.

The big loopholes

Even after the President signs the bill, the reform won't take hold right away. It was carefully designed not to kick in until after the Nov. 5 election. That way, the parties — which have been stockpiling hundreds of millions of dollars since last year — need not surrender that cash before the upcoming battle for control of Congress. The Democratic National Committee also has $30 million in soft money that it plans to spend quickly for a new headquarters. "It reminds me of the old drunk who swears he will quit drinking tomorrow, but he's going to get drunk tonight," says Representative Tom Davis, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, the fund-raising arm for the House G.O.P.

After Nov. 5, however, the bill would have a dramatic effect — preventing corporations, unions and fat cats from writing million-dollar checks to buy influence with the parties. (Enron and its affiliates, for example, spent over $2 million in soft money for the 2000 elections.) But just as water tends to find ways to flow, "money will still get to the campaigns," predicts a G.O.P. fund raiser. Special-interest groups wouldn't be able to use soft money to broadcast attacks on radio or TV just before an election, but the bill doesn't prevent them from putting that cash into direct-mail, e-mails or get-out-the-vote campaigns against a candidate. The soft-money spigot would be shut for the parties, but more regulated "hard money" would be allowed to pour in. Under the bill, a donor could give $2,000 to a single candidate and a maximum of $95,000 to different candidates and party organizations during a two-year election cycle. That's almost double the current hard-money limits. The new power brokers will be well-heeled types "who can bring in a lot of $2,000 checks from their friends," says a senior official at the Democratic National Committee.

That may explain why Bush isn't too bothered by a soft-money ban. For his 2004 re-election bid, the President is likely to have a huge hard-money advantage — in his first presidential bid, some 200 Bush "Pioneers" each raised $100,000 in $1,000 increments from friends--and the soft-money ban would make it hard for Democrats to catch up. Already the Dems are scrambling to narrow the huge Republican lead in hard money. The Democrats' new headquarters will have high-tech computers to help reach more of the $2,000-range donors.

The last time Congress passed sweeping campaign-finance reform was in 1974, after the Watergate scandal. But the big bucks have long since crept back in. "Any campaign-finance reform law works for a period of time," says Anthony Corrado, a Colby College professor of government. "But it has to be revisited from time to time, or the money will find ways to get back into the system."