How a 'Soft Money' Ban Would Change Politics

Campaign-finance reform makes key gains during week of congressional debate.

Confounding its Washington critics, campaign-finance reform lives. Sweeping changes in the way national candidates raise and spend money have moved within a silver dollar's throw of becoming the law of the land, thanks to the House's surprise passage of a reform bill earlier this week.

Big corporate and union checks would disappear from party coffers, under the bill. Campaign "issue advocacy" ads paid for by outsiders would vanish from the airwaves, if reform backers prevail.

The catch is that moving within sight of passage probably isn't good enough. Implacable Senate opposition, plus a lack of legislating time, means campaign reform is unlikely to pass in 1998.

Backers thus hope that this year's success will become a base camp from which they can reach the summit in the next Congress.

Even if it isn't signed into law, the current reform effort "is a benchmark" for 1999, said one of its primary sponsors, Rep. Marty Meehan (D) of Massachusetts, at a Monitor breakfast yesterday.

The fact that the issue is still on the congressional agenda at all represents a defeat for the House Republican leadership.

Earlier this year, Speaker Newt Gingrich essentially buried campaign-finance reform legislation. So supporters took an unusual step - they passed a petition among House members, looking to pry the bill loose and bring it to the floor for a vote.

When the petition came close to success, the leadership relented and allowed campaign-finance reform to proceed. But they set up a complicated, beauty-contest-like voting procedure. Different reform bills compete for member approval - with the one that gets the most votes crowned the winner.

As of this writing, the winner of this contest appears to be a sweeping bill long championed by campaign-reform proponents, and nicknamed "Shays-Meehan" after its primary sponsors, Rep. Chris Shays (R) of Connecticut and Representative Meehan.

Shays-Meehan might yet be superseded by less-stringent legislation sponsored by a group of House freshman. But its strong showing this week - it passed by 237 to 186, with 51 Republican votes - surprised even supporters, and set it up as a strong favorite.

Banning 'soft money'

The bill's main provision would ban so-called "soft money" donations, which largely come from corporate coffers and unions. Such donations are given directly to political parties, ostensibly for "party building" activities such as vote drives, and aren't subject to the limits on contributions to candidates put in place following Nixon-era fund-raising abuses.

Shays-Meehan would also attempt to outlaw "issue advocacy" ads. These are campaign ads bought by independent groups, ostensibly without the knowledge of the candidate the group favors.

While such changes may sound arcane to nonresidents of Beltropolis (a new term for inside-the-Beltway Washington), they could result in massive change in the current campaign-finance order.

The two giant parties which govern America together raised and spent $270 million in soft money in the 1996 elections. Soft money contributions are at the center of many of the allegations of campaign-finance abuse swirling about the Clinton White House.

Banning soft money "is a great first step," says Jodie Silverman, communications director of the watchdog group Public Campaign.

Parties in peril

But if soft money is eliminated, Democratic and Republican headquarters may be thrown into poverty. "It would have a dramatic effect on the financial resources of the political parties," says Craig Holman, project director at the National Resource Center for State and Local Campaign Finance Reform in Los Angeles.

Starving the parties isn't necessarily a good thing. Many political scientists feel that without strong parties to provide an organizational and ideological framework, US politics could become a chaotic system of essentially free-lance candidates - many of them rich.

The US would have to "come up with appropriately high [hard money individual] contribution limits to party committees, so as not to strangle them off altogether," says Mr. Holman.

The Democratic party, for its part, says it is already adapting its fund-raising policies to this potential brave new world. DNC officials say they are in the process of trying to lessen their reliance on big soft-money donations by building up direct-mail lists and other modern ways to raise money - procedures where the GOP has long had an edge.

"We're trying to raise more money with smaller donations," said Meehan.

Eliminating issue-advocacy ads would also change the landscape of campaigning. Some say the power of the groups which typically buy such ads - the National Rifle Association, teacher's unions, religious conservative organizations - could wane.

Or maybe not. Opponents believe that restricting such ads could run afoul of First Amendment protections. And they say that overall, attempting to restrict campaign finance is like playing the game Whack-A-Mole - you hit it one place, and it pops up somewhere else.

"It would force us to be creative to find new ways of finding money," says Rick Ridder, president of a Denver-based political consulting firm. "Does it stop the flow? No. It just changes the dynamics of the system."

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