Re­form That Has Re­ally Paid Off

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook - By Norman Orn­stein and An­thony Cor­rado Jr.

This week marks the fifth an­niver­sary of the en­act­ment of the Bi­par­ti­san Cam­paign Re­form Act, also known as McCain-Fein­gold. There haven’t been any birth­day par­ties of note. Mitt Rom­ney re­ceived tu­mul­tuous ap­plause at the Con­ser­va­tive Po­lit­i­cal Ac­tion Con­fer­ence last month when he called the law “ill-con­sid­ered” and “harm­ful” and pledged to re­peal it if he is elected pres­i­dent. Newt Gin­grich, with typ­i­cal un­der­state­ment, de­scribed McCain-Fein­gold in Na­tional Re­view On­line as “the most sys­tem­atic ef­fort to cen­sor and re­press po­lit­i­cal speech by those in power since the Fed­er­al­ist over­reach of the 18th cen­tury.” Even Fred Thompson, who voted for the mea­sure in the Se­nate and worked to en­act it, said re­cently that it hasn’t worked as in­tended: “I’m not pre­pared to go there yet, but I won­der if we shouldn’t just take off the lim­its and have full dis­clo­sure with harsh penal­ties for not re­port­ing ev­ery­thing on the In­ter­net im­me­di­ately.”

To be sure, th­ese com­ments by pres­i­den­tial as­pi­rants are aimed at mol­li­fy­ing con­ser­va­tive ac­tivists who de­spise cam­paign fi­nance re­form — and at stick­ing it to their ri­val, John McCain, its god­fa­ther. But they also re­flect a wide­spread view that BCRA did not work, that cam­paign re­form has been a fail­ure. But that’s wrong. McCain-Fein­gold has worked — even bet­ter and faster than its ar­chi­tects imag­ined.

The most strik­ing re­sult of McCain-Fein­gold has been the spec­tac­u­lar resur­gence of po­lit­i­cal par­ties. Far from with­er­ing, as crit­ics pre­dicted they would at the time of pas­sage and as they con­tinue to re­it­er­ate, our par­ties are richer, and stronger at the grass roots. In the two elec­tions held be­fore BCRA, the na­tional par­ties raised a to­tal of $2.1 bil­lion, nearly half of it in un­reg­u­lated “soft money” — six- and seven-fig­ure do­na­tions from cor­po­ra­tions and wealthy in­di­vid­u­als. In the two elec­tions since, the par­ties raised ex­actly the same amount, but all in “hard money,” mean­ing smaller con­tri­bu­tions from in­di­vid­u­als and PACs. The par­ties had to shift their fo­cus to the re­cruit­ment of small donors. Both have taken ad­van­tage of the In­ter­net and other fundrais­ing tac­tics to add more than a mil­lion new grass-roots sup­port­ers to their donor rolls. Small donors are now the largest source of party money.

Con­sider the 2006 elec­tions. In the pre­vi­ous midterms, in 2002, half the money raised by the na­tional party com­mit­tees was soft money. In 2006, in­di­vid­ual donors who each gave less than $200 were the largest source of party do­na­tions, ac­count­ing for $1 of ev­ery $3 raised. The im­por­tance of those who give $20,000 or more has greatly di­min­ished. In 2002, th­ese donors were re­spon­si­ble for 46 per­cent of all party money, in­clud­ing soft con­tri­bu­tions. In 2006, they pro­vided only 12 per­cent of party re­sources. In all, the par­ties raised $309 mil­lion from small donors, com­pared with $108 mil­lion from the big­gest donors.

Nearly all the party soft money raised in 2002 was chan­neled di­rectly into television and ra­dio ads, most of them at­tacks on op­po­nents. Only a tiny share of the ads even men­tioned the party that spon­sored them. A much larger share of the money raised in 2006 went to party-build­ing, grass-roots and get-out-the-vote ef­forts, all signs of party-build­ing from the bot­tom up.

The par­ties’ suc­cess in rais­ing money un­der BCRA has made them more im­por­tant in re­cent elec­tions. In 2006, the na­tional com­mit­tees spent a com­bined $248 mil­lion in di­rect sup­port of their can­di­dates: The Repub­li­cans spent $130 mil­lion, the Democrats $118 mil­lion. This was more than they spent in sup­port of can­di­dates in the 2002 elec­tions, even with soft-money-funded “is­sue ads” in­cluded. The im­por­tance of party fund­ing was par­tic­u­larly pro­nounced in key House races; in 17 of them, the par­ties spent more than the can­di­dates them­selves dur­ing the gen­eral elec­tion pe­riod.

An­other crit­i­cism of BCRA is that it mostly helps in­cum­bents, a fa­vorite point of Gin­grich’s. The re­al­ity is that in the two elec­tions be­fore BCRA, the num­ber of House mem­bers de­feated at the polls in Novem­ber was six and eight, re­spec­tively. In 2006, 22 House in­cum­bents went down to de­feat, along with six sen­a­tors. Crit­ics have also lam­basted the law’s “sham is­sue ad” pro­vi­sions that ban the use of cor­po­rate funds or union dues for broad­cast ads tar­get­ing can­di­dates close to an elec­tion. But stud­ies of cam­paign-re­lated ads in 2004 and 2006 showed that the air­waves re­mained filled with ads spon­sored by out­side groups or in­di­vid­u­als, who were free to use money from PACs and in­di­vid­u­als to run any and all ads they wished.

As mem­bers of a cam­paign fi­nance work­ing group in the late 1990s, we both helped to struc­ture BCRA. We saw its pro­vi­sions as nar­rowly tar­geted and in­cre­men­tal, not revo­lu­tion­ary. We thought the law would pro­duce a flow­er­ing of grass-roots party ac­tiv­ity, a resur­gence of small donors and a re­duc­tion in the sale of ac­cess to elected of­fi­cials in re­turn for cam­paign funds — and a de­crease in the shake­downs of donors that this prac­tice in­duced. But we thought it would take sev­eral elec­tion cy­cles for the changes to take root. In­stead this hap­pened im­me­di­ately.

The crit­ics will con­tinue to ig­nore the num­bers and play to the ide­o­logues. We will open up a fine vin­tage wine to cel­e­brate five years of a more vi­brant and fair cam­paign process.


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