Reform campaign financing

If there is anything political parties can agree on, it is that they will try to sell short common goods for individual ends. The McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Bill, passed with great fanfare in 2000, is now being subverted and undermined. Mere days after the bill legally took effect Wednesday, the political parties have put into motion methods to strip it of any true effect.

When passed, politicians trumpeted the bill as a mechanism to bring politics back to the populous. It prohibits individuals, corporations and labor unions from donating unlimited amounts – so-called soft money – to the national parties. These contributions could flood over the capped individual contributions – so-called hard money – received by candidates directly as the national parties could siphon funds to campaign for key races. Taking away the unlimited influence of large donors makes the smaller, capped donations more meaningful.

The parties wasted no time in circumventing this noble intention. To prevent the bill from being unconstitutional, there is a built-in exception for wholly intrastate activities. State parties can collect soft money as long as they do not spend it on federal races and act independently from the national parties. Before the bill took effect and this firewall was put into place, the parties began to coordinate with the state parties and large donors to ensure the unlimited funds would continue to flow. Two days after its passage, little is left of the bill other than name. As the saying goes, the operation was a success, but the patient died.

If the parties are unable to check their disgraceful conduct, the states must step in. Ideally, no further legislation would be necessary. The parties should not only recognize, but also embrace the spirit of McCain-Feingold. They should welcome the individual returning to central prominence in the political process. If they do not, however, and stay on their current course, the individual states should exercise their federalist power and staunch the soft money flow within their borders. This is a more arduous task. It would require each state to recognize the problem, or more realistically, for voters of each state to force the issue onto the state legislators. Voters must clamor to resurrect individuals’ meaningful political participation. But some fix is necessary. Democracy is difficult. It must be earned. But that does not mean it should be sold.