Last Thursday the House of Representatives passed the Shays-Meehan bill, a campaign finance reform with some real teeth to it. And in a related story, not nearly enough people noticed. Whenever this admittedly drab policy issue is debated, no one notices. It may not be sexy, but it may be the most important thing Congress has done in many years. It appears we are closer than ever to closing the “soft-money” loophole that has plagued political financing since Watergate. The accusation that Congresspeople are up for sale to the highest bidder has always been a pox on both our legislative houses. With this vote last week, we have come one step closer to ending this perception.
“Soft” money is dollars contributed by individuals, corporations and political action committees to national parties, and there is no limit on the amount of money that can be given. Theoretically, this money is only to be used for so-called “party-building activities.” But that rule is usually interpreted with all the integrity of a French figure skating judge.
Many of the attack ads you see right before an election are purchased with soft money. Under Shays-Meehan, these ads become illegal 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election.
Congressional candidates often spend as much time raising money as they do legislating. And under the current system, they really don’t have a choice. If you want to keep your job, you need money. You need money to buy 30-second ads that usually don’t really say anything but identify you with voters. You need money for mailings not covered by franking privileges that tell your constituents all the things you’ve done since the last time they elected you to serve. You need money for a campaign staff whose job is to spend the money you raise, and then help you raise more.
Shays-Meehan won’t end the plague of constant fund raising among candidates and incumbents, but it will help limit the wealthiest people and corporations from having an undue influence on elections merely by the power of the wallet. Because leaders will now have to take less money (the cap for individual donors becomes $2,000) from more people, the highest bidder goes by the wayside, and having the most bidders becomes the key to raising needed dollars. Hopefully, the more people, the more responsive.
For presidential candidates, raising the requisite $20 million to even consider launching a legitimate primary campaign is still a ridiculous hurdle. But during the general election, the excuse of “outside interest groups” being the cause of negative advertising might no longer apply. In that way, Shays-Meehan might also help contribute to a more civil and constructive debate. It should also help take away the perceptions of unseemly corporate ties that plagued Bill Clinton and, more recently, George W. Bush and his relationship with Enron.
In the wake of the discovery that Enron spent millions contributing to campaigns as regulators turned a blind eye to its illegal bookkeeping, the call for reform has been louder than ever. The goal is to have Shays-Meehan, highly similar to the McCain-Feingold legislation passed in the Senate last year, get through the Senate without filibuster. It isn’t the perfect answer for all campaign finance issues (and in an era of Supreme Court protected self-financed candidates, there may never be a perfect answer), but it is a tremendous step toward needed reform and more responsive government. Let’s hope enough people outside the beltway begin to notice.
- Collin Sherwin is a senior majoring in political firstname.lastname@example.org