On the eve of an election that will be marked by record spending and newly relaxed rules, campaign finance reform champion and ex-Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said the laws he helped write are still standing — but just barely.
As the co-author, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), of the landmark 2002 ban on unlimited soft money donations, Feingold has emerged as the reform movement’s leading architect and spokesman. In an interview with Roll Call, he voiced confidence that the ban on large, unlimited campaign contributions remains essentially intact, but he warned that the wall between politicians and unregulated money is thinning.
“Almost nothing of our election laws is still standing,” said Feingold, who now heads the political action committee Progressives United. The PAC’s mission is to counter and eventually reverse the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, which overturned the long-standing ban on corporate and union spending for independent campaign activities.
That ruling also threw out one part of the 2002 McCain-Feingold law: the requirement that outside groups use only hard (regulated) money when they run issue ads that picture or name a candidate in the runup to an election.
But Citizens United did nothing to change the McCain-Feingold law’s centerpiece, namely the ban on soft money fundraising by party leaders and politicians. Plenty of rules have been rolled back, Feingold said, but candidates, party leaders and federal officials may still not solicit unlimited corporate and union donations for the parties, as they did before 2002.
“The only thing that’s really still there is our McCain-Feingold ban on Members of Congress raising this money directly,” Feingold said. McCain, too, said after the ruling last year that “key aspects of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, including the ban on soft money contributions, remain intact.” McCain was not available to comment for this story, and he has had little to say about campaign finance issues recently.
But Feingold also warned that politicians are working hard to skirt that ban. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are asking donors to write checks to Democrat-friendly super PACs, a new breed of PAC facilitated by the Citizens United ruling.
Such PACs may collect soft money otherwise banned from federal elections as long as they operate independently from parties and candidates. The FEC ruled last month that politicians may raise money for super PACs as long as they don’t ask for checks larger than the federal limit of $5,000.
But donors remain free to write checks into the range of millions of dollars, directly from corporate or union treasuries, regardless of any $5,000 disclaimer on solicitations. Moreover, last month’s FEC ruling freed lawmakers to attend and speak at super PAC fundraising events. That puts federal officials and party leaders in the same room as big soft-money donors, which Feingold said is too close for comfort.
“I’m worried about any games to do this indirectly, even when it’s prohibited directly,” Feingold said. He faulted Democrats, in particular, for endorsing new regulations while “trying to find out some way to get huge checks anyway.”
Democratic leaders “know darn well that [donors] are allowed to give far more” than $5,000 to super PACs, he said. “And they are attaching their name to that sort of effort. I worry about Democrats trying to have their cake and eat it, too.”
So far, Republican lawmakers and party officials have hung back from similar super PAC fundraising. But that might soon change.
GOP presidential hopeful and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is backed by a super PAC that’s collected $12 million on his behalf. And organizers at the leading GOP-friendly outside groups American Crossroads and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies are mulling the fundraising role lawmakers might play.
“Obviously, we’re looking at that issue carefully,” American Crossroads President Steven Law said. “It’s a sensitive one. I think what Sen. Reid and Congresswoman Pelosi are doing is definitely at the [sharp] edge of where the law is. And we try to be somewhat conservative in the way that we operate. So we are taking a close look at the FEC’s guidance, and we are talking to campaign finance lawyers to assess what the right comfort factor is in doing that sort of thing.”
For his part, Feingold remains convinced that Democrats should embrace election reform as a campaign issue. He has sharply criticized Democrats who assailed secretive big-money groups last year, only to set up Democrat-friendly super PACs and politically active nonprofits to help candidates in 2012.
But Feingold, whose PAC has collected $1.4 million this year, has struck out to build his own grass-roots following. Feingold has been mentioned as a possible candidate to replace retiring Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), but he was coy about whether his PAC activism might morph into a campaign for public office: “I’m passionate about this issue, whether I run for office again, or never do again.”