What if "soft money" - those unlimited donations to political parties by wealthy individuals and special interests - was banned?
As momentum builds on Capitol Hill toward a vote on campaign-finance reform, the "what ifs" are growing louder. And even the sponsors of Congress's best-known campaign-finance bill acknowledge that the consequences of their legislation might not be completely satisfying.
If the bill passes and soft money is outlawed, Americans would see two effects, says sponsor Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, who lends his name to the McCain-Feingold reform bill. There would likely be an increase in "issue ads," as well as a heightened race for "hard money," the cash that is donated in limited amounts for use in specific campaigns. Candidates, he says, would likely spend even more of their time raising money than they do now.
Limiting big money's influence
But he and Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona maintain that a ban on soft money would still break some of the unseemly connection between big-money donors and the way laws are drafted.
Senator Feingold says the case of Federal Express bolsters his point. Last year, he says, FedEx donated $100,000 in soft money to each party and in return, got an anti-labor-union provision put into federal aviation legislation. The payoff came this summer: When workers for archrival United Parcel Service went on strike, union-free FedEx gained market share.
Senator McCain raises his own example: the cable television industry. In last year's Telecommunications Reform Act, he says, the interested companies were able - in effect, through soft-money donations to the parties - to buy a seat at the table as the legislation was drafted. The result, he says, was a bill that favored the companies but left consumers out in the cold. A year later, cable rates are up.
Feingold himself characterizes the bill as representing only "modest reform." And some campaign-finance experts doubt the McCain-Feingold reforms would have a dramatic effect on the way special interests are able to influence legislation.
"The idea that there's going to be a lack of special-interest influence in any meaningful way is overly optimistic," says Kenneth Gross, former chief of enforcement at the Federal Election Commission.
"Maybe some of the big, big influence on gun and tobacco [issues] could potentially be muted, but when it comes to riders on tax bills, that's the kind of thing that might be hardest to reach. That's corporate America, and that's large wealthy interests.... They're protected by the First Amendment [which guarantees free speech]."
In addition to banning soft money, McCain-Feingold would place restrictions on "issue ads" that are produced by special interests across the political spectrum. These advertisements can serve to influence elections, even without expressly naming a candidate. And by helping a candidate win election, the corporate and labor interests that produce the ads gain access to elected officials. For now, the government does not require contributors to report donations to issue-ad campaigns.
McCain-Feingold doesn't ban issue advocacy; it can't, on grounds of free speech. But it does attempt to draw a "bright line" between genuine, legitimate advocacy of an issue and veiled efforts to support a politician's candidacy. Under the bill, no issue ad that airs within 60 days of an election may directly refer to a candidate.
The rise of 'issue ads'
Still, the rush to issue ads is growing. In a telling move, the AFL-CIO labor organization announced this week that it now supports a ban on soft money, but will raise its dues on union members to pay for an increase in political-issue advertising.
Although the Senate has focused on soft money, Mr. Gross, the former FEC official, believes issue advocacy is a bigger problem. Those donors can give as much money as they want to, and the donations don't have to be disclosed to the FEC.
"Presidential candidates and party committees at least have to account for soft money, but there's no accounting for issue advocacy," says Gross.