McCain-Feingold helps parties

May 04, 2001|By Scott Harshbarger

WASHINGTON -- Like junk food addicts resisting the need to eat healthier, the political parties are addicted to huge campaign contributions.

So it's not surprising that some political operatives are wary of the bipartisan McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, which the Senate passed in April. Both Democratic and Republican Party operatives are predicting that the bill will destroy their respective parties.

To the contrary, McCain-Feingold would leave the political parties where they were in 1988, before some clever lawyers in both camps found a way to evade generations-old laws that banned corporations and labor unions from directly giving to congressional and presidential campaigns.

Enforcing these laws hardly constitutes a dagger in the heart of our political system.

For more than a decade, the parties have been feasting on soft money -- the political equivalent of junk food -- and it totaled $463 million in the last election cycle, almost evenly divided between both parties. These funds are fed by corporations, unions and wealthy individuals with agendas on Capitol Hill, many of whom give to both Republican and Democratic Party committees to hedge their bets.

Giving up their addiction makes some operatives in both parties nervous.

Democrats are concerned because they don't raise as much hard money now as Republicans. But there is reason to believe that if Democrats focused more of their efforts on raising smaller amounts of money, they could achieve better results.

Indeed, in 2000 Democrats increased their hard-money contributions compared to 1996 by 19 percent, while Republicans increased their contributions by only 9 percent.

Republicans worry that a soft money ban doesn't sufficiently diminish all the efforts labor unions make to energize their members, almost always in support of Democratic candidates.

But McCain-Feingold would do nothing to prevent companies from doing what labor unions do and actively educate their employees about political issues, a trend that some groups, such as the Business Industry Political Action Committee, see as the wave of the future.

While this soft money junk food has made the parties flush with cash, it hasn't made them flourish.

As parties collect more soft money, voters are fleeing both parties in droves. In 1964, only about 2 percent of Americans declared themselves independents and third-party voters; in 1998, an estimated 13 percent of the electorate claimed independent or minor party affiliation. If that's what soft money can do for you, you might be better off taking this junk food off your plate.

Soft money, with its empty calories, could be replaced by more efforts to recruit real people into politics, by grooming candidates, by sending volunteers to do the doorbell ringing, by articulating what your party stands for, rather than what principles it is willing to compromise to stay in power.

It may take discipline, but the McCain-Feingold diet could be just what it takes to get the parties fit and trim once more.

Scott Harshbarger is president of Common Cause.

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