On the fifth anniversary of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, many of the benefits are apparent for all to see: no huge soft-money contributions from labor unions and corporations, new small-donor support for the parties, a renewed emphasis on citizen involvement. And of course the same tired collection of half truths, distortions of fact and convenient omissions from the critics are to be expected. But one of the many tirades against BCRA gave me pause. Oddly enough, it was an opinion piece by a college freshman for his campus newspaper. What gave me pause was not that the piece parroted all the usual arguments of campaign finance reform opponents, but that the author would have been in eighth grade when the law passed and likely completely unaware of pre-BCRA fundraising practices in Washington, D.C.
Though most reform opponents and revisionist historians don’t have the excuse of having been in junior high school when BCRA was debated, the opinion piece brought home the wisdom behind the old saying that if something is repeated often enough, no matter how outrageous, there are those who will come to take it as gospel.
Accordingly, it is worthwhile to review the standard planks used to build nearly every attack on BCRA and to judge them against the pre-BCRA reality.
The first plank in almost any attack on BCRA is the mischaracterization of the goal of the law to say that it was intended to remove money from politics — an assertion as absurd as it is unconstitutional.
The sponsors of BCRA sought to remove the corrupting influence of huge soft-money contributions used to skirt contribution limits, and the presence of corporate and labor money in national party accounts despite the banning of such funds by Congress many years before. The soft-money prohibition in BCRA has been an undisputed success. That is to say no one disputes that soft money is gone from the national parties. Candidates and elected officials can no longer solicit these contributions, and individuals, corporations and unions can no longer utilize their six- and seven-figure soft-money checks to curry favor with lawmakers. Interestingly, almost no one suggests that things were better when the parties, and their officeholders, were chasing soft money.
Critics today rarely mention what used to be the standard second plank of any attack on BCRA — that the soft-money ban would be a “suicide pact” for the Democratic Party, and “Armageddon” for the Republican Party. The critics of BCRA should remember (even if college freshmen may not) that now-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced that the passage of BCRA would eviscerate the national party committees by cutting off unlimited soft-money donations.
Well, as it turns out, Sen. McConnell and the other BCRA opponents were dead wrong. The national party committees are doing just fine. In the first two election cycles under BCRA, those parties have raised more hard money than they did in hard money and soft money combined in the two cycles prior to the law taking effect.