Reformers seeking to limit the impact of money on the U.S. political system won a major battle in Congress last week. Reform advocates now stand on the brink of enacting the most significant changes to federal campaign finance law since 1974. But changes in the law will not necessarily change the public's cynical view of how money influences American politics.
The reform measure was approved by the House of Representatives and now awaits final action in the Senate. If, as expected, the Senate passes the bill, it is likely to be signed into law by President Bush.
The reform bill would ban unregulated donations from corporations, unions and individuals to political parties. These so-called "soft money" contributions were originally intended to help political parties mobilize their supporters to go out and vote. Direct contributions to candidates, known as "hard money," are already limited under federal laws approved in the wake of the Watergate scandal in 1974.
In recent years, unions, corporations and advocacy groups have funneled increasing amounts of soft money contributions to the political parties that has then been used to either indirectly attack or support specific candidates through ads on radio and television. This loophole in federal law led to half a billion dollars in soft money contributions to both parties during the 2000 presidential election cycle.
Congressman Martin Meehan, a Democrat from Massachusetts, is one of the leaders of the campaign reform effort. "I think this system will be vastly better than what it is today under our reform," he said. "That is not to say that sometime in the future there won't have to be additional reforms made." Most Democrats support the reform measure and are joined by a sizeable minority of Republicans in the House and Senate.
Republican opponents base their objections on two arguments. First, they contend Americans should be able to contribute as much money as they want to the candidates of their choice, equating the freedom to give money with freedom of speech. Second, opponents argue that money always finds a way into the political system, just as it did after the Watergate reforms of the 1970s.
"The fact of the matter is that soft money will seek a place to hide," observed Jo Ann Emerson, a Republican Congresswoman from Missouri. "And there is a place to hide in this bill. Dark enough and big enough to provide cover for mountains of soft money."
Lawmakers on both sides of the campaign finance divide acknowledge that the reform effort got a boost from the Enron scandal. The demise of the nation's largest energy-trading company and its efforts to buy influence by contributing millions of dollars to both Republicans and Democrats reinvigorated campaign reformers who had been stymied in Congress in recent years. Most political analysts predict that the public will generally welcome the reforms.
"It would be a step in the direction of better government," noted Stephen Wayne, a Professor of Government at Georgetown University in Washington, "because people would have slightly more faith that elections are not elections for the special interests but elections in the public interest."
But analysts also predict that voters are not likely to shed their cynical views on money and politics any time soon. "On the one hand, the public will probably say that this is a good step," said Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes an independent political newsletter in Washington. "After all, it is being cast as reform and reform is always regarded as good. The public will say this is a good reform. But on the other hand, I think the public is cynical enough and knows politics in this country enough not to believe that things are going to be fundamentally changed."
One of the more controversial provisions in the reform bill would prevent unions, corporations and advocacy groups from airing political ads that target specific candidates during the 60 days leading up to an election. Various groups on both sides of the political spectrum have spent millions of dollars in recent years trying to influence elections at the last minute through thinly veiled attack ads on radio and television.
Historians note that special interest groups have always found ways to funnel money to the politicians of their choice. Political analyst Rothenberg says it happened after the Watergate reforms of the 1970s and it will happen again. "There is still going to be plenty of money in American elections," he predicted. "Interest groups are going to be able to participate, the parties are going to be able to participate. They are just going to have to look for some different ways to participate."
Many reform supporters concede their bill is only a modest step toward the larger goal of limiting the impact of money on U.S. politics. But they also say that any step toward reducing the power of special interests is a step worth taking.