- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Effective today, in accordance with the ostensibly historic campaign-finance legislation passed in March, national party committees are prohibited from accepting or spending "soft-money" contributions. So-called soft money represents the unlimited, essentially unregulated though fully disclosed contributions that corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals have donated to political parties, which used the funds for "party-building activities" (e.g., voter-registration and get-out-the-vote drives) and issue-advocacy ads.
This money will not simply vanish, no matter how much the good-government crowd at Common Cause and the other self-appointed guardians of America's democratic experience wish it would. Nor should it. Soft money indisputably increases political participation above the level that would occur in its absence. And soft money finances political speech, hardly a commodity in oversupply. In both cases, it has played an integral role in America's elections.
It is naive in the extreme to believe that a legislative ban would, ipso jure, immediately purge half-a-billion dollars from the nation's political arena during each two-year election cycle. As long as the federal leviathan insists on exerting its vast, and growing, powers over its citizens and their business pursuits, efforts to influence that power by funding similar electoral interests will not cease. With the federal government now spending more than $2 trillion annually (and raising nearly as much in taxes), this simply will not happen. Nor will it happen as long as the 130,000 staff members of 55 federal regulatory agencies continue to issue 20,000 new regulations every five years or so, as they did from April 1, 1996, to Sept. 30, 2000, according to the General Accounting Office.
During the 1999-2000 presidential and congressional election cycle, national Democratic and Republican Party committees, including their House and Senate campaign committees, cumulatively raised about $500 million in soft money, which was split virtually evenly between the two parties. Through Oct. 16 of the 2001-2002 congressional election cycle, according to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), Democratic national party committees have raised $200 million in soft money ($120 million more than was raised at a comparable moment during the 1997-98 congressional cycle). Over the same period, Republican national party committees have raised $222 million ($117 million more than in 1997-98).
Long before the soft-money ban took place, the national parties and other interest groups were busy designing legal efforts to circumvent it. The Republican Governors Association (RGA) and the New Democrat Network, to name only two party-related organizations, will play increasingly larger roles. While members of Congress can no longer directly solicit soft-money contributions, party campaign committees, such as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, have already established special soft-money conduit committees. As election-law guru Ben Ginsberg, who serves as outside counsel to the RGA, told the National Journal recently, "You'll have a complete transfer of soft money, from the national committees to outside entities."
Meanwhile, court challenges have been in the works for months. The provision that prohibits non-party interest groups and organizations from using contributions comparable to soft money to finance issue ads and other so-called "electioneering communications" within 60 days of a general election is not only extremely anti-democratic; it is also almost certainly unconstitutional.
Unintended consequences? Diverting soft money from national political party committees will inevitably further weaken the nation's political party system, which ought to be strengthened. For decades, parties played an important role as intermediating institutions between special interests and candidates. A strong party system provided policy coherence through party discipline, both of which will be further eroded as parties become weaker institutions. Moreover, many of the new groups that will become the recipients of the diverted funds are now, or will soon be, operating as 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) nonprofit organizations, which are not required to disclose their donors. Welcome to the new era of campaign-finance reform.

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