Going Nowhere

Posted July 12, 2005 at 4:48pm

The spirit that enabled the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act to pass seems to have vanished. The bill remains law, but efforts to extend its principles to cover so-called 527 committees are faltering, and the House seems set to pass a bill that could undermine not just BCRA, but decades of campaign finance law.

During the 2004 election, Republicans denounced unlimited spending by pro-Democratic 527s as a violation-in-principle of BCRA, which supposedly outlawed soft money. Early in this Congress, it looked as though Republican regulars and campaign reformers would join forces to pass legislation reining in 527s by confining them to raise and spend money like other political committees covered by BCRA.

Even some leading Democrats, including Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, signed on as co-sponsors of 527-control legislation sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), in spite of the fact that 527s largely helped Democrats in the last election.

That was then. Now, Senate Republican leaders seem to have no interest in bringing 527 legislation to the floor this year. And, as the bill was being considered in committee, Schumer quit as a co-sponsor and amended the bill to remove restrictions on the ability of 527s to use soft money to fund voter-registration and get-out-the vote activities, effectively gutting it in the eyes of its advocates.

In the House, meantime, GOP leaders are pushing a bill ostensibly designed to bring political parties back into parity with 527s that would actually enable them to raise such huge amounts of hard money from rich individuals as to effectively eliminate the distinction between hard and soft money.

The House bill, co-sponsored by the bipartisan team of Reps. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Albert Wynn (D-Md.), would eliminate so-called aggregate restrictions that limit the total amount an individual can give to federal party committees and candidates in each election cycle. The current limit is $101,400, of which $40,000 can be given to federal candidates and $4,200 to any individual candidate.

As Roll Call disclosed on Monday, if individuals and candidates made use of joint fundraising accounts, an increasingly popular fundraising device, it would theoretically be possible for one donor to give $3 million per cycle — and it would also be possible for one candidate to influence how much of it was spent.

Wynn claimed that it was a “paranoid conspiracy fantasy” to imagine that such a scenario would unfold, but as we continually learn, any time the slightest crack is opened in the wall of laws intended to restrict the amount of funds spent to influence campaigns, money will pour through it.

Pence-Wynn may pass the House, but probably won’t pass the Senate. In the meantime, 527 reform is going nowhere. So, we’re not going backward — but we’re certainly not going forward.