Fix BCRA

Posted August 27, 2004 at 2:20pm

If “money equals speech,” as critics contended during the debate over the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, then their fears that BCRA would stifle either must be completely exploded by now. Equally wrong is the notion that political parties would be doomed to irrelevance. And as intended, the law has separated the corrupting nexus between corporate and union money and politicians who make laws.

But BCRA has flaws — flaws that permit union and corporate soft money to influence federal campaigns through 527 committees. Owing to the indecisiveness of the Federal Election Commission, these loopholes will have to be closed by Congress. Specifically, Congress should say that if a political committee works to defeat or elect a federal candidate, it needs to be governed by BCRA and must therefore collect only hard money.

Contrary to dire predictions, BCRA’s ban on soft money has not limited political speech at all in this presidential cycle. Total spending by the presidential candidates, the parties and 527s already tops $1 billion, almost double the cash collected at this point in 2000. Contrary to predictions, too, the Democratic Party has not suffered by being cut off from soft money, which accounted to a majority of its income in the 2000 cycle. Democratic Party committees have raised a total of $246 million in hard money this cycle, compared to $222.6 million in hard and soft in 2000. Through June 2000, Republicans raised $377.4 million in hard and soft money — most of it in hard dollars — compared to $475 million this cycle.

It’s true that in the absence of soft money, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have not matched their 1999-2000 funding levels, but the falloff is modest. The DSCC raised $49.3 million through June 30, compared with $51.1 million in 2000, while the DCCC raised $56 million, compared to $60.9 million four years ago. The National Republican Senatorial Committee raised $56 million in 2000 and $50.4 million this year. The only Congressional party committee to see an increase was the National Republican Congressional Committee, which topped the $84 million it raised through June 30, 2000, by collecting $115.2 during the same period this cycle.

It’s true that BCRA has transferred from the parties and candidates their near-monopoly “power over the message” into a shared arrangement with independent 527s. It’s also true that the 527s (mostly Democratic outfits, so far) tend to be harsher in their rhetoric, as the pro-Kerry MoveOn.org and the anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth demonstrate. But getting politicians out of the business of raising huge amounts of money from corporations and organized labor seems to us a fair trade-off from the old status quo.

Our problem is that one idea behind BCRA — though it was not stipulated in the law — was to get corporations and unions out of the business of influencing elections. Through 527s, they are still in. They’ve contributed $98 million to 527s, about half their incomes. The FEC was weighing a proposed regulation that would have forced 527s to raise at least half their funds from hard money. This was defeated because two commissioners, Democrat Ellen Weintraub and Republican Bradley Smith, hesitated to set a standard for deciding when a committee is attempting to influence an election. In the FEC’s absence, it’s up to Congress to say: If you attack or defend a candidate by name, do it with hard money — and not with funds from corporations or organized labor.