HOUSE DEMOCRATIC Caucus Chairman Martin Frost of Texas observed the following about the effects of proposed campaign finance reform legislation: "The political parties would be neutered, and third-party groups would run the show."
The McCain-Feingold bill banning soft money, which has passed the Senate, would have deprived the Democratic Party of half of its funds and the Republican Party of one-third of its funds in the last election cycle.
In campaign finance jargon, "soft money" is evil money, or so we are told.
Yet most people don't have the slightest idea what the term means.
Soft money is every dollar raised by national political parties that is not federally regulated. It is the money national parties share with state and local candidates. And it is the money used for overhead and issue debate by the state and national parties. It cannot be used to directly promote any federal candidate.
Soft money is voluntarily contributed, disclosed and regulated. It is spent and recorded in accordance with state law.
Banning soft money will make illegal the money contributed by national parties to a state party's traditional programs dealing with voter registration, getting out the vote and absentee ballots whenever there is a federal candidate in the running.
In the last election cycle, the Republican National Committee (RNC) sent $93 million to state parties that helped fund 110 million get-out-the-vote and issue pieces, 25 million absentee ballots and 65 million phone calls.
Those who believe that strong political parties are the best defense against the influence of special interests, media moguls and self-financed millionaire candidates regard the McCain-Feingold bill as a disaster that will cripple the two-party system and federalize most of campaign finance and issue discussion. In usurping the authority of states to regulate campaign expenditures, it essentially nationalizes state election law.
National political parties are not just parties of Congress but work with states to promote gubernatorial and local candidates. In the 2000 election cycle, the RNC contributed $11 million to state legislative races and $7 million to gubernatorial contests, all regulated by state law.
As McCain-Feingold strangles political parties, other interest groups could still collect unlimited funds from any source - unregulated and unreported. Labor union activity, estimated by a Rutgers University study to have been valued at $300 million in the 2000 election cycle, was unregulated. It remains unregulated.
Of the $500 million spent on issue ads during the last election cycle, 68 percent was spent by third-party special-interest groups - twice that of both political parties combined. Without soft money, these special interests and the media will control political discourse because the parties will not have the money.
It will increase the influence of the media and political action committees.
Ellen Sauerbrey twice was the Republican candidate for governor of Maryland.