Campaign finance bill

New campaign finance legislation authored by U.S. Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass., will effectively curb the raising and spending of soft money. It will also restrict the use of issue ads and track contributions more vigilantly. This is admirable. Campaign financing does need reform, but not at the expense of preventing average citizens from voicing their views. The Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill would reduce the direct influence of money on future elections, but the inequities favoring incumbents will remain. The measure will make issue advocacy difficult for grass-roots organizations.
Shays-Meehan prevents candidates from circumventing official campaign spending limits by using soft money. This is what the Democratic National Committee did in 1996 with TV ads featuring President Clinton. The ads increased his air time without adding to official campaign expenditures. In eliminating this loophole, Shays-Meehan also hampers the original intent of soft money, which allows businesses, unions and advocacy groups to contribute funds for party-building activities. Soft money allows unlimited contributions to political parties. Direct contributions, or hard money, have strict limits on how much can be contributed and how much can be spent. The legislation also prevents parties from giving money to nonprofit groups to engage in local electoral and issue advocacy. The funding of these efforts to strengthen participation in political parties should not be tied to legislation aimed at large contributors.
TV ads paid for by independent parties with soft money have increased dramatically in the 1990s. These ads are permissible because they do not expressly state a “vote for” or “vote against” stance. This qualifies as issue advocacy under Supreme Court standards and is not covered under campaign law. Shays-Meehan attempts to reduce the number of this type of ad by forcing them to be paid for with direct campaign funds. Only candidates and political action committees receive funds directly. This is a good idea, but it also prevents non-mainstream groups from being heard during the mandated 60-day period before election day. Minority groups like the NAACP, NOW and the Gay and Lesbian Task Force would be unable to criticize candidates running racist, sexist or homophobic campaigns.
Knowing who is giving large contributions to a candidate can help the public make informed electoral decisions and increase candidate accountability. However, Shays-Meehan requires disclosure of contributions as small as $50 — hardly corruption-level donations. Requiring disclosure will likely deter the small contributions that generally come from first-time donors, such as students and people with low incomes. This would put minor party candidates and challengers seeking new supporters at a disadvantage because of the increased paperwork requirements. Incumbents have more resources available to deal with this law, such as mailing lists.
While eliminating loopholes, Shays-Meehan hinders the local grass-roots advocacy efforts that are essential for a democracy. In its present form, this legislation is flawed and must be fine-tuned, allowing non-mainstream voices to be heard.