April 10, 2007
Clearly, the 2001 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law hasn't fully lived up to its promise of weeding excess money from political campaigns. In fact, "527" groups have thrived, providing yet another means for money to flow into the political process.
Conservatives would argue that the most effective means to regulate campaign financing is to remove McCain-Feingold restrictions from federal law and force transparency on all money used for campaign purposes.
The ultimate regulation - and power to punish politicians who abuse the election process - is the American people's constitutional right to vote against candidates they believe have corrupted the process by misusing money in campaigns.
McCain-Feingold was passed by Congress and signed into law as the "Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002." This law regulated so-called "soft-money" issue advertisements and made other changes to campaign finance law, but it has had unintended consequences. Soft money is defined as funds spent by groups that are not contributed directly to campaigns.
The goal of McCain-Feingold - to remove the appearance of corruption from politics - was laudable, yet the solution seems to have made the problem worse. The law shifted money from campaigns controlled by the candidates to independent groups and interests.
One of McCain-Feingold's offensive provisions bans soft-money, nonpartisan issue ads by corporations and labor unions 60 days prior to a general election, or 30 days prior to a primary election. A complete ban on advertisements that may affect the outcome of an election would seem to be a clear violation of political speech. The consequence of the ban was the expansion and increase of 527 organizations.
A 527 is a tax-exempt organization that is used to influence elections. These groups are not regulated by the Federal Election Commission, and they do not operate under contribution limits. They have changed the nature of politics to the point that third parties and unregulated independent groups have effectively taken over the message and campaign strategies of many high-profile candidates.
Two famous examples of 527s are Moveon.org and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Both groups produced negative ads that affected the 2004 presidential contest. Some 527 groups played a significant role in the 2006 congressional election cycle, as well.
The 527s have constitutional protection to express their views. Yet, because of McCain-Feingold restrictions, they have effectively used campaign-finance loopholes to hijack the campaigns of the parties' candidates.
The First Amendment to the Constitution states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech." The courts (which have likened money to speech) have allowed some limitations on contributions to political campaigns and parties, but even these limitations have limits.
Liberals would have you believe that we need to remove all private money from politics by shifting to a system of publicly financed campaigns. Your tax dollars would be used to fund hundreds of candidates whom you both love and despise.
Each party would nominate a candidate, and each candidate would get a specific sum of money to run a House, Senate or presidential campaign. Better than this liberal big-government solution, however, would be a free-market system wherein ideas win or lose.
The McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law has failed to remove money from politics, largely because candidates simply cannot communicate their messages without it. The only practical and effective way to limit money in campaigns is to force transparency on all campaign activities and let the public use the power of the vote to regulate the activities of candidates.
Brian Darling is director of U.S. Senate relations at The Heritage Foundation, a leading Washington-based public policy institution.
First appeared in the Riverside Press-Enterprise