`Soft money' ban is upheld

Supreme Court rules, 5-4, that Congress can limit political donations

Restrictions on ads affirmed

December 11, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In a landmark ruling yesterday with implications for the 2004 elections and beyond, a narrowly divided Supreme Court upheld the heart of a sweeping campaign finance law that bans large, unregulated donations to political parties.

The law, hailed by its supporters as a way to dampen the influence of big money on elections, bars parties and candidates from collecting contributions known as "soft money" that in the past 15 years have become a central element in the way campaigns are financed.

In a 5-4 decision that sanctioned the broadest restrictions on campaign fund raising in three decades, the court ruled that Congress has the power to impose such limits in order to combat the corruption of candidates and the political process - whether real or perceived.

The ruling also upheld the law's restrictions on political advertising - often financed by corporations, unions or other interest groups - in the weeks immediately before elections. The soft money ban, curbs on advertising and other rules Congress approved in 2002 were important enough in preventing shady dealings in political campaigns - or their appearance - that they outweighed the free speech concerns critics raised, the court held.

Advocates for the changes to campaign finance rules contained in the law hailed the court's decision, declaring it a watershed moment that would end the corrosive influence of wealthy individuals, corporations, unions and other well-heeled special interest groups on politics.

"The toxic link between donors who write six-figure checks and people in power at the highest levels of government has been severed," said Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, a group that has long advocated tightening campaign finance rules.

But the court's majority opinion, written by Justices John Paul Stevens and Sandra Day O'Connor, a key swing vote, acknowledged that the ruling will not rid the political system of influential campaign cash. Instead, the decision seemed to reaffirm Congress' authority to regulate the money-raising process, both with the 2002 law and in the future.

"Money, like water, will always find an outlet. What problems will arise, and how Congress will respond, are concerns for another day," said the majority, which included Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

In his dissent, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said that Congress went too far in its attempts to limit political speech.

"No doubt Congress was convinced by the many abuses of the current system that something in this area must be done," wrote Rehnquist. "Its response, however, was too blunt." Also dissenting were Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

Critics called the ruling an infringement of free speech that would deprive voters of important information that could drive their political decisions, without accomplishing the law's stated goal: lessening the influence of big money in politics.

"This law will not remove one dime from politics," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who has been the leading congressional opponent of the law. "Outside special interest groups have become the modern-day political parties. Soft money is not gone - it has just changed its address."

Political activists have adapted to the new rules, setting up or revamping dozens of partisan interest groups to collect the corporate and union contributions, as well as large individual donations, that used to go to the political parties.

One such group, MoveOn.Org - formed to protest the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton and to target the Republican lawmakers who spearheaded them - is spending millions on ads running on TV this week that portray Bush as Santa Claus checking off a long scroll of gifts to moneyed special interests.

And wealthy individuals such as billionaire financier George Soros, a fervent Bush opponent, are stepping up to the plate, pledging their willingness to spend millions to influence the presidential election.

The measure is often called "McCain-Feingold" for the lawmakers - Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat - who drafted it and powered it through Congress.

"This opinion represents a landmark victory for the American people in the effort to reform their political system," McCain and Feingold said in a statement released yesterday with the two main House sponsors, Reps. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, and Martin T. Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat.

As it made its way through Congress, the measure enjoyed far broader support among Democrats - traditionally regarded as the more populist of the two major political parties - than among Republicans, who are seen as closer to corporate interests.

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