The future path of soft money

Reform may force parties into close ties with interest groups

Names and faces come and go in this town. Policy positions shift with the prevailing winds of public opin-ion. But the Democratic and Republican Parties endure. They are pillars of political stability, as certain as a late-season swoon by the Boston Red Sox.

Yet as the campaign-finance debate continues, the parties are increasingly being portrayed as the latest additions to the endangered-species list. Take, for example, the words of Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) in the closing days of the Senate debate: "There has been a lot of discussion about who wins and who loses," he said. "We both lose. This is mutually assured destruction of the political parties."

Now, with Congress back from vacation and the campaign-finance bill headed for the House, the doomsday rhetoric is sure to reverberate through the halls again, as opponents make one last attempt to scuttle reform.

Yet many experts believe that, instead of going extinct, the parties will simply reinvent themselves. Indeed, some say they could end up thriving - but in a way that makes the regulation of money in politics even more difficult. Under this scenario, the parties would work more closely with the very interest groups whose influence reformers are trying to limit - proving that the one certain law in this city is the law of unintended consequences.

"The [campaign-finance] law would have an effect," says John Bibby, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "But if America's political parties have proven anything over the past 100 years, it's that they are adaptable."

The threat lies in the McCain-Feingold bill's plans to eliminate unlimited contributions to political parties (so-called soft money). In the end, opponents argue, it hurts the political system more than it helps because it weakens one of the system's enduring strengths - the parties.

For party supporters, McCain-Feingold was always a legislative nightmare. Soft money, while framed in the Senate debate as an enemy of good government, has long been a significant prop to the Democratic and Republican organizations.

The parties spent roughly half a billion dollars in soft money - $243 million for Democrats and $244 million for the GOP - in the 2000 campaign cycle. That money went for everything from brochures to get-out-the-vote drives to voter registration. Under McCain-Feingold, which imposes caps on soft money, parties would have to do without a lot of it.

The wrong target?

In the end, says Terry Michael, a former spokesman for the Democratic Party, the bill goes after the wrong targets. "Self-proclaimed reformers have hated political parties since the Progressive era, but it is simply misguided," he says.

The current system actually helps maintain accountability, he explains, since donations to parties are part of the public record. "We can simply put all of the information out there on the record and let the reporters report" on fundraising activities.

Indeed, before the amounts of soft money became so huge, that was the general consensus in Washington. Party money was seen as a way to moderate the influence of interest groups, not exacerbate it. Channeling General Motors' or the United Auto Workers' money through a party was better than letting them give to candidates directly.

Though the post-Watergate campaign-reform era established a series of rules on how much individuals could give, soft money was a noticeable exception. Congress, in fact, seemed to endorse the idea of soft money in 1979 when it changed campaign-finance laws to allow unlimited money to be raised for party-building activities.

There is still a lot of legitimacy to that argument, says Steve Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "Parties are the only organizations that exist solely to get a candidate elected, not to push a specific interest, and we're taking money away from them."

Dwindling power

The weakening of party power is not a new development, but rather the continuation of an on-going trend.

For one, the parties' most basic task - keeping the rank and file together - has become the equivalent of herding cats. In the past 20 years, personal accomplishment and celebrity have replaced the standard road to political success - party loyalty.

Indeed, in the era of poll-driven politics and 24-hour news, winning support from the folks back home is often more about appearing above party concerns.

Take, for example, the champion of campaign-finance reform, Arizona Sen. John McCain (R). It's no coincidence that Senator McCain, a maverick known for working outside the system, is the reigning presence in Congress, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who proposed a Republican movement, is sitting at home.

The parties lost their luster with much of the American public long ago. While most voters say they like their particular representative, whether Republican or Democrat, they see the parties as responsible for Washington's partisan tone and inaction.

"If the public had to make a choice between fixing campaign finance and making the parties' job harder, they'd choose the latter," says Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.

Though many people still have some affinity for their party and use the parties to sort through complicated issues, they certainly "aren't going to shed any tears" over a drop in the money the parties bring in, Mr. Kohut says.

Quasi-party organizations

But should McCain-Feingold emerge from the House intact and survive court challenges (some question whether banning soft money violates the First Amendment), it's highly unlikely the parties would disappear.

The Democratic and Republican Parties, established in 1792 and 1854 respectively, have survived other anti-party challenges in the past, such as those that came with the Progressive era of the late 1800s, and experts say they will survive this as well.

Even Mr. Michael, who believes McCain-Feingold is "a way for people to lash out at the parties," sees the parties enduring, albeit in an altered form. "Money will find its way into politics and into the parties," he says. "I can't tell you exactly how it will happen, but it will."

The most likely change, many agree, is that the parties will work more closely with interest groups to create quasi-party organizations, groups that essentially fulfill the soft-money role of the parties, but are much more closely associated with specific interests.

For instance, instead of giving money to the Republican and Democratic Parties, General Motors or the United Auto Workers may form a GM/Republican organization or a UAW/Democratic group that helps candidates directly.

The biggest effect of the new law, in other words, may be a weaker separation between parties, candidates, and special interests - the exact opposite of what McCain-Feingold intends, says Brad Smith, a commissioner with the Federal Election Commission, which oversees campaign-finance law.

"To the extent that this hampers the parties, we'll see parties working in other ways with people who are affiliated with parties," Mr. Smith says. "And that will bring calls of 'sham organizations.' "

These new party organizations may be harder to control than their old counterparts. While there are laws about what parties and interest groups have to report, it is unclear whether these new hybrid groups would be subject to the same rules.

As a result, even more money could end up pouring into quasi-party groups that have even less accountability than the parties themselves.

Of course, all that may spawn yet another round campaign-finance reform. But the more Congress tries to take the parties out of the election game, the more they are hurting small upstart campaigns, Mr. Schier says.

While parties will always find a way back in, the more complicated rules will have one certain effect, he says: "Each time you raise the regulations, the cost goes up more. You have to hire lawyers right off the bat."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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