The interesting thing about campaign finance reform is that it's intended to bring political contributions back to their Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) levels, nearly -- the so-called "hard money" contribution ceiling of $1000 is, in the bill, raised to $2000, and soft money contributions, made to a party rather than a candidate, would be outlawed entirely.
The reason this was put in place was ultimately Richard M. Nixon -- in my opinion, probably one of the most effective and yet most evil presidents we ever elected, an anti-Semite, anti-liberal, anti-minority Republican who was not too extreme in his conservatism but yet still evil. Watergate was part of a greater scheme to bring in obscene amounts of money to the Campaign to Re-elect the President (CRP). As a result of what happened during Watergate, limits of $1000 per individual and $5000 per political action committee (PAC) were put in place, for direct contributions to candidates.
Come 2000, and in the general election both Al Gore, former Vice President and Democratic candidate for the presidency, and George W. Bush, now the president and Republican candidate, raised record-setting amounts of money for their campaigns. Why is this a problem?
The best way to put it is to quote Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who said in an editorial in the New York Times on Sunday, 2 April 2001:
One result of McCain-Feingold is certain: America loses. The parties are vital institutions in our democracy, smoothing ideological edges and promoting citizen participation. The two major parties are the big tents where multitudes of individuals and groups with narrow agendas converge to promote candidates and broad philosophies about the role of government in our society.
I think this is particularly relevant, because what I believe McCain and Feingold are doing is exactly what I've always wanted to see. I am a firm believer in the Democratic Party, and I always have been, but I'm not a believer in the two-party system; and here we arrive at the first benefit of campaign finance reform.
The First Benefit
Third parties have in the twentieth century been excluded rather dramatically from the American political process, to the point that there are only a handful of major third-party showings in presidential elections through the entire century: Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, Strom Thurmond in 1948, George Wallace in 1968 and 1972, John Anderson in 1980, and Ross Perot in 1992. Every year, many third-party candidates run for the presidency, and generally they poll less than 3%. Their principal disadvantage is fund-raising -- most of them do not, with the exception of Perot's Reform Party, have fabulously wealthy supporters, as the Republicans and Democrats do, underwriting their campaigns. If campaign finance reform passes, and is signed by President Bush, then it will be a way for the third party candidates, in presidential and other campaigns, to get their feet into the door, in terms of fund-raising, at least.
The First Cost
At the same time, there is a distinct cost that this comes with. If we ban soft-money contributions, then the political parties will have very, very limited resources to work with directly. I'm unclear, given the mixed messages I've been getting, on whether the parties can raise hard money, also, but if so, that means that they will be subjected to a substantial amount less in terms of financing. Unpopular candidates, incumbent or otherwise, will have a lot of difficulty raising money; but is that really a cost, rather than a benefit?
The Second Benefit
As I see it, this bill closes one really, really stupid loophole: Does anyone think it's reasonable to be able to give $1 million, say, or even $100,000, or $10,000, to help candidates out? That means that they count more than I do in having a say in who represents me, because even though I can go out and volunteer to canvass, that $10,000 may buy a commercial that gets ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty times as many people as I can canvass.
The Second Cost
As a follow-up to the First Cost, if we see stronger third parties, we're going to see weakened major parties. That could be detrimental to our political system, as McConnell has a point: They're big tents that we gather people under, in terms of ideology; we have limited splintering, unlike in Europe, of our ideological beliefs. In this country, there are Democrats who are pro-life, contrary to popular belief, and Republicans who are pro-choice, and yet they are able to disagree with their leadership in their party and remain in the party. That may or may not be beneficial -- we've never had, in all our history, more than two major parties, although in the nineteenth century we had a number of candidates who served as representatives from minor parties.
The End Result
I think this is ultimately a win-win situation for Americans, because, as McCain so succinctly put it during his campaign, it's revolting to think that our candidates are bought and sold. Perhaps we'll have to come back in ten years, and nix this -- but, as Franklin Roosevelt told us, so many, many years ago, "It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."