Senate Rules Committee begins lengthy campaign-finance debate
Few in Congress detest the efforts to revamp the way Americans finance political campaigns more than Sen. Mitch McConnell.
But as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, the Kentucky Republican has vowed to provide a forum for the campaign-finance reform debate to end all reform debates. And he admits that he’s relished the chance to “delve behind the sound bites and to explore the assumptions on which the reform debate has been predicated.”
But he’s blunt.
Phrases such as “soft money,” “hard money,” “issue advocacy” and “express advocacy,” he stresses, “are euphemisms for constitutionally protected means of political speech and association.”
“Make no mistake,” McConnell said at the beginning of last week’s hearing, “the campaign-finance debate is a battle over constitutional freedom — of private citizens and groups as well as politicians and political parties — to participate in our democracy.”
Over the next three months, the Senate Rules Committee will conduct no fewer than nine hearings to listen to several dozen experts and to accept thousands of pages of testimony. The committee was scheduled to meet today to discuss compelled political speech.
Not surprisingly, the issue of soft money — those donations accepted by political parties mostly for party-building efforts and get-out-the-vote programs — dominated the first month’s worth of hearings.
Few contest the growth of soft-money donations. During the last presidential election period, the national political party committees raised about $60 million. Last year, the committees nearly doubled that, raising more than $107 million.
But few agree on the impact of such donations.
Bobby Burchfield, a Washington, D.C., lawyer specializing in campaign financing,
stressed that leading reform groups like Common Cause and the Brennan Center for Justice falsely describe soft money as unregulated donations.
Both the receipt and disbursement of such monies, he told the committee during an April 5 hearing, are reported publicly to the Federal Election Commission and are available on the Internet. Many state laws regulate soft money as well, he said.
Burchfield offered that donations don’t corrupt the political process.
“While some donors may seek ‘influence’ through their donations, I doubt that these efforts succeed,” he said. “To the contrary, I believe that the overwhelming majority of donors make decisions about donations primarily based upon positions already taken by the candidate or party, not as an effort to change those positions.”
But Scott Harshbarger, president of Common Cause, told the committee that such donations had a clear, undeniable intention — to influence.
“Only the most staggeringly naive could believe that this soft money is not given by the donors to curry favor with federal officials,” he said. “Only the most gullible could believe that these contributions have no impact on the recipients.”
Harshbarger noted that the Supreme Court reiterated in Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC earlier this year that there is a compelling national interest in regulating political campaign contributions.
“The court again upheld contribution limits and poked a hole in the myth that money equals speech,” he said. “The Supreme Court has given the green light for legislators to pass this kind of reform … the ban of soft money.”
But reform opponents say the Nixon decision merely echoes the court’s 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo which upheld federal restrictions on direct contributions to candidates but struck down limits on expenditures.
They say the courts routinely strike down federal and state laws and FEC regulations that hinder issue advocacy because they infringe on First Amendment speech rights. As long as donated money is not used expressly to support or oppose candidates, persons and groups are free to spend their dollars as they wish, they say.
Burchfield added that a soft-money ban would damage a political party channeling dollars to special interest groups, thus weakening a party’s ability to participate in public debate.
“A ban on political party soft money would exacerbate this situation,” he said. “Voters would have a less clear idea of the party agenda, and parties would find it more difficult to translate election returns into a public mandate.”
Robert Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, contended that the Republican National Committee would lose 30% of its annual budget with a soft-money ban.
“There is no better forum through which the average citizen can have such a dramatic impact as through a political party,” Bennett said. “We are a fundamental link to informed citizens, and a vast majority of the work we do is simply providing information to voters.”
But Charles Kolb, president of the Committee for Economic Development, said that with the advent of soft-money donations, the American political spectrum has seen a heightened race for political money and higher campaign costs. At the same time, competition in election races has decreased and the number of small-dollar donors has declined.
Kolb said his group’s research shows that in 1984, 38% of individual contributions were $500 or more. By 1998, that figure had grown to 61%.
“Average citizens are dropping out,” he said. “Too many have simply stopped voting and giving.”
Phillip Taylor, a reporter for the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., is a free-lance correspondent for the First Amendment Center.