When the spending for this year's presidential and congressional races is finally tallied in December, a record $3.9 billion - at least - will probably have been spent, some $1.2 billion of that on the Bush-Kerry contest alone.
Those staggering figures, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, whose primary effort is following the campaign money trail, represent a 30 percent increase over what was spent in the 2000 election.
Yet even with the enormous amounts of money that helped fuel political races this year, the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law can claim some modest accomplishments.
In fact, the law's restrictions on "soft" money have helped make the parties more reliant on smaller donors. According to the center, individual contributions will total $2.5 billion by the end of the current election cycle. That's a big jump over the $1.5 billion in individual contributions raised in 2000.
And the political parties managed to raise record amounts of money in spite of the law's centerpiece - which bans parties and candidates from accepting unlimited, unregulated soft dollars from corporations, unions, and individuals - and in spite of widespread predictions that the McCain-Feingold law would mean the demise of the parties.
The two parties also have had to develop stronger grassroots fundraising efforts - healthy for democracy in that the more individuals involved in the political process, the better. And, perhaps most important, big donors were better kept at arm's length from direct solicitation by parties and candidates.
Still, big-money donors managed to make use of a large loophole in the law to bolster both Democratic and Republican campaign efforts, and more needs to be done to keep in check such fundraising and spending in future elections.
An estimated $460 million in soft money has been funneled to so-called 527 independent advocacy groups. Unfortunately, those groups were the principal source of a barrage of harsh attack ads against both Bush and Kerry (recall the Swift Vets and POWs for Truth ads helped by rich Texas donors such as T. Boone Pickens and Harold Simmons, or MoveOn.org's efforts, funded largely by billionaires George Soros and Peter Lewis) along with massive voter registration drives (including some whose tactics already have been questioned).
Frequently more vitriolic in their approach than the candidates themselves, many 527 ads also grossly distorted the opposing candidate's central campaign messages, bringing campaign negativity to troubling new levels.
Obviously, 527s need better managing in ways that also preserve free speech, and that's no small task. These groups gave an outsized political voice to those with deep pockets. At least 46 people contributed $1 million or more to 527s, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, which also tracks campaign finance - hardly a wide public sampling.
Like the parties and the campaigns, 527s need contribution limits. Sen. John McCain and others in Congress recently filed legislation to do just that, rightly putting a $5,000 cap on individual contributions to a 527.
Under the campaign finance law, 527s can't coordinate their activities with campaigns (still, they're often run by former party officials). And federal officeholders can't directly solicit donations for them. But the Federal Election Commission recently allowed loopholes in both provisions. And while a judge threw most of the loopholes out in September, the move wasn't in time to affect this year's races.
Congress needs to seriously consider further reform efforts, such as reining in 527s, and should quickly move to address the ineffectiveness of a highly partisan FEC so that campaign fundraising and spending can find more reasonable balances.
When the Supreme Court upheld McCain-Feingold in December 2003, clearly it was suggesting the Constitution's free speech protections didn't preclude sensible campaign-finance regulation. Creating modest restrictions on 527s furthers that worthy aim, and helps demonstrate that a few individuals can't buy a president.