WASHINGTON — THE elation among reformers over the Senate's passage of campaign finance reform last week was immediately dampened by a chorus of cynics.
"The bill is patently unconstitutional and will be thrown out by the Supreme Court."
"Money will flow just as rapidly but now through less accountable passageways."
"The free-speech rights of citizens will be grievously restricted, rendering them unable to criticize politicians close to an election."
"Political parties will be weakened and independent groups strengthened."
"Savvy political consultants will quickly identify new loopholes to render the law ineffective."
Let's set aside the obvious internal inconsistencies of these charges and the question of why opponents waged such a titanic struggle against the legislation if it was doomed to fail at the hands of the federal courts or entrepreneurial political actors.
The reality is that the bill now ready for the president's signature was carefully crafted to withstand constitutional challenges and anticipate unintended consequences. It reflects a new and welcome pragmatism in the reform community, a willingness to take incremental steps to repair the most egregious tears in the fabric of federal campaign-finance law.
Citizens should welcome Congress's action for two reasons. First, the law will alter the way political money is raised and spent in an overwhelmingly constructive way. Second, taking steps to rein in soft money (unlimited political contributions) and electioneering under the guise of issue advocacy is an essential prerequisite to making further improvements in the campaign system.
Some changes are relatively easy to forecast. National party committees and elected officials will no longer be able to receive or shake down mega-contributions from corporations, unions, and individuals. The scramble for soft money has distorted how party leaders and aspiring leaders spend their time, who they talk to, and how they structure their political operations.
Fundraising will continue apace, but within the confines of federal law: no funds from corporate or union treasuries, only from their voluntary political action committees, reasonable limits on the size of contributions to candidates and parties, and no sleight-of-hand transfers among national and state parties to undermine legal limits and muddle disclosure. This will reinsert some much-needed space between big-interested money and public-policy decisions.
The national parties will be more likely to spread their resources beyond a mere handful of targeted races, to shift from attack-oriented TV advertising to grass-roots campaign activity, and to engage in more genuine party-building. State and local parties will have incentives and resources to become more than funding conduits for federal candidates.
Outside groups now addicted to electioneering issue ads will engage in more campaign activities on the ground, reducing the demand for and cost of TV time. These shifts, contrary to what critics say, could increase the dismal level of competition in congressional races.
Corporate and labor leaders will be relieved of pressure from national politicians to make six- and seven-figure contributions and to allocate funds to finance "issue ad" campaigns for and against federal candidates close to the election. This, too, is likely to lead to greater investments in organizational capacity and grassroots political activity.
Perhaps most noticeable will be a decline in the brazen flouting of federal election law by politicians, consultants, and interest-group activists. They openly wage federal election campaigns with nonfederal funds under the banner of issue advocacy. American democracy has been diminished as a consequence. This will stop.
The new law is no panacea. Every democracy struggles to manage these problems in ways that won't damage other values. Solutions are partial and temporary, requiring ongoing repair work. But the alternatives including a return to a state of nature through an entirely deregulated system are much worse.
The new law is such a repair job, returning our political finance system to how it operated in the early 1980s. Having taken this critical step, we can now make more improvements. The agenda is full: tax credits for small donations, free or subsidized mailings and TV time for candidates and parties, a new enforcement agency to replace the now hopelessly ineffective Federal Election Commission; and adjustments in a very shaky campaign finance system.
Let us give thanks for what has been achieved and move briskly on to the next stage of reform.
Thomas E. Mann is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.