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The Comeback of Campaign Finance

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Ten years after his Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act was enacted, Sen. John McCain says campaign finance rules are in tatters and more reform is needed.

Ten years after they celebrated the enactment of their sweeping ban on unregulated campaign cash, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) have revived their assault on big money.

The two are not plotting some grand new reform or launching a public relations tour — though they did tape a public radio segment together recently. But a decade after the McCain-Feingold law was signed by the president (March 27, 2002), the erstwhile allies are delivering a strikingly unified message: The campaign finance rules are in tatters, scandals will follow, and voters will once again demand reform.

“Thanks to a naive and politically ignorant decision by the United States Supreme Court, obviously it has been largely dismantled,” McCain said in an interview about the law that he authored with Feingold. “And the consequences are manifesting themselves every day in what will someday be, sooner rather than later, a huge scandal.”

Feingold struck a similar note.

“We put a brick on top of a wall, and the brick is intact, but the wall was smashed by the Citizens United decision,” Feingold told Roll Call. “It has turned the election system into a joke.”

Feingold stressed, however, that the centerpiece of the McCain-Feingold law, officially the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, remains intact: the ban on soft money fundraising by federal officials. For all the super PACs ushered in by the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling to deregulate corporate and union campaign spending, lawmakers, candidates and party officials remain barred from directly asking CEOs and wealthy donors for unrestricted checks.

“It’s a federal crime if a Member of Congress calls up like they used to do and says to a big company — Microsoft or AT&T — ‘Give us $500,000 for a dinner next week,’” Feingold said. “They can’t do that.”

Of course, the line between candidates and the super PACs that back them can be a blurry one. Laws that bar such political action committees from coordinating with candidates and parties are loosely enforced, at best.

Federal Election Commission regulations now permit politicians to appear at super PAC events, as long as they don’t ask for donations larger than the federal limit — a setup that strikes some as a wink and a nod away from soft money fundraising.

“As the pressure mounts, people are going to see that this [super PAC money] isn’t independent in any way, shape or form, and it does have a corrupting influence,” Feingold said.

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