Translation: national government is corrupt largely because of soft money and by clamping down on soft money, political corruption will shrivel. It’s a simple and appealing formula. As with most such formulas, however, it misreads reality and promises more than it can deliver. Though we do need to address any possible corruption resulting from campaign contributions, we need to do it in a way that doesn’t damage the ability of our already-weak political parties to add some coherence to America’s peculiarly complex, candidate-centered politics.
Soft money refers to unlimited contributions directly from corporations, unions, and individuals to party committees. A series of Congressional amendments and Federal Election Commission rulings in the 1970s and 1980s permitted political parties to raise unlimited funds for “election related activities” by state and local parties. These monies, held in “nonfederal” accounts, are not subject to the “hard money” limits of the funds in “federal” accounts. Hard money limits cap annual individual contributions at $25,000. They require interest groups to contribute to candidates and parties through regulated Political Action Committees at a maximum rate of $5,000 per candidate per (primary or general) election and limit individual contributions to $1,000 per candidate per election. Though wealthy individuals, corporations, and unions are thus sharply limited in their hard money contributions, the sky is the contribution limit with soft money.
Since 1980 the parties’ national committees and their House and Senate campaign committees have raised increasingly mammoth amounts of soft money, cresting at $262 million in 1996 and $250 million in 1998. Where does all of this money go? Originally, soft money was to be spent on grassroots campaigning by state and local parties for brochures, door knocking, and get-out-the-vote efforts.
The real explosion in soft-money fund raising occurred after a 1995 Federal Election Commission ruling that permitted the parties to spend soft money on “issue advocacy” advertising, an obscure government action that had huge consequences. Though issue-advocacy advertising legally cannot expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate, it can link candidates to issues in a way that supports or opposes their election. What is express advocacy? The FEC defined it as any communication that uses phrases like “vote for,” “vote against,” “elect,” or “defeat,” and “can have no other reasonable meaning than to urge the election or defeat of one or more clearly identified candidates.” Creative campaign minds found all sorts of ways around those restrictions in 1996. The race for soft money to fund issue-advocacy advertising had begun.
The campaign finance scandals afflicting the Clinton presidency in recent years have involved raising soft money from dubious, often overseas sources in large amounts. But the real lesson for candidates from the Clinton experience in 1996 is that soft-money spending works. The Democratic party committees spent over $46.5 million on soft-money-funded ads aiding Clinton’s re-election in 1996, many of which appeared early in the election year before Dole and the Republicans were able to respond (they eventually did, but with a comparatively meager $18 million in soft-money ads).
Soft money can spell the difference between victory and defeat, as the 1998 Kentucky Senate race revealed. Pitting two House incumbents, Democrat Scotty Baesler and Republican Jim Bunning, against each other, the race featured an orgy of soft-money spending by the state parties. Though Baesler began the fall campaign with a double-digit lead over Bunning, he was short on funds after winning a competitive primary. Bunning was assisted by over $1.5 million worth of ads paid for by the Kentucky Republican Party, raised with the help of Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, an outspoken defender of soft money. One GOP soft money ad attacked Baesler for supporting NAFTA, concluding with a stereotypical Mexican saying, “Muchas Gracias, Senor Baesler.” The state Democratic Party could only spend one-third of the Republican total for ads. The money disparity helped Bunning earn a narrow victory in November.
McCain and his fellow reformers have some good arguments against the current soft-money regime. It’s not wise to allow corporations and unions to give unlimited amounts to parties. Large corporations give huge amounts to parties to secure or defend favorable governmental treatment. The publicly owned digital television spectrum was recently distributed for free to television broadcasters, who have given $5 million in soft money in recent years. Agribusiness companies have given over $4.5 million in soft-money in recent years, helping to maintain federal ethanol subsidies worth $500 million annually. Even if these actions aren’t out-and-out bribes, they certainly present an “appearance of corruption” to many citizens.
In addition to bad appearances, the explosion of soft money advertising has increased the “clutter” of messages besieging voters during election campaigns. Political scientist David Magelby, in a recent book on the impact of soft-money and issue-advocacy advertising in the 1998 elections, concludes that in competitive House and Senate races, voters are “inundated” with communications about the candidates and that “the negative tone of many of the noncandidate ads has the potential to reinforce alienation and cynicism among voters.” In several states, party ads were more negative than those run by candidate campaigns.
So if soft money contributes to at least the appearance of corruption in national politics, confuses and alienates voters, we should get rid of it, right? That is certainly the conventional wisdom about campaign finance reform in many Washington circles. But it’s not entirely correct. We need to keep parties well-funded in some form to ensure they don’t have their electoral role greatly diminished. Why? Because, despite the clutter, there are some good arguments for party-based election advertising. Our elections can survive the onset of message clutter, but they can’t prosper without robust national parties at the center of the campaigns.
The attack on soft money is appropriately an attack on corruption, but it’s also an attack on political parties themselves. Throughout American history, political parties have performed vital services for our democracy. America would benefit from stronger parties, for three reasons. First, strong parties bring people into politics. By distilling the choice among a variety of candidates to a selection between one of two partisan “teams,” parties lower information costs for voters, thus encouraging those with less education and less income to vote. In the twentieth century, as ballots have become more complex, it has become harder for many voters to sort their way through the increasing amount of information needed to make an informed decision.
The growing trend of recent decades has been toward more personalism in politics, dominated by candidates selling themselves, not a common party platform. Though Congress is more partisan lately because of the close competitive balance between the parties, the public has turned away from political parties. Political scientist Marvin Wattenberg has found that steadily more members of the public have no views at all about political parties and find them less and less relevant to politics. Accordingly, candidates sell themselves as individuals. Just ask yourself when was the last time you saw a party label prominently displayed in a candidate’s general election TV or radio ads? Parties have all but disappeared from candidate communication with general election voters because candidates find the party label less useful in rounding up support.
This sort of politics occurs in Latin American countries such as Peru and Venezuela, where presidents Fujimori and Chavez appeal to the masses first. In both countries, personalism has weakened parties and democracy. Though America is far from the instability of Peru and Venezuela, it shares with them a pattern of declining voter participation and disengagement of large segments of the population from politics. The 49 percent turnout in the 1996 U.S. presidential election was the lowest since 1924, shortly after women got the vote. The 36 percent turnout in the 1998 midterm election was the lowest since the 1942 midterm, which occurred in the middle of a world war.
Second, strong parties can shield lawmakers from the very special-interest influence that many accuse them of surrendering to. As support for parties and turnout in elections has declined, interest-group membership has grown. Now, the proportion of Americans who are interest group members far exceeds the ranks of strong party identifiers. A 1990 survey conducted for the American Society of Association Executives estimated that 70 percent of the public are members of associations, while the number of strong partisans hovers around 30 percent.
As interests grew in numbers and strength in recent decades, lawmakers became more responsive to them. The number of groups listed in the Encyclopedia of Associations mushroomed from 5,000 in 1956 to 23,000 by 1996 and a record number of lobbyists now ply their trade in Washington. From the National Federation of Independent Businesses on the right to the American Association of Retired Persons on the left, national government is beset by hundreds of well-funded, effective, and insistent interest groups. With their resources of campaign money, hired analysts, and memberships that vote, their clout has never been greater.
This cacophony of interests has its costs. Proliferating interest groups do not produce accountable government the way party-based elections can. Worldwide, nations with weak party systems have low participation in elections. Meager electoral participation plays into the hands of organized special interests. In America, these special interests are highly skilled in the art of activating their members to vote and lobby. And with fewer other voters, such groups have a larger voice in electoral outcomes. You need look no farther than the success of Christian conservative groups in promoting the Republican triumph in the 1994 elections to see how well-organized interest groups benefit when others stay home.
Political scientist Robert Putnam correctly argues that accountability to a broad set of interests can only result from heavy electoral participation that exerts influence over the behavior of elected officials. Strong party systems have a global record of facilitating that participation. In America’s weak party system, low participation reduces the accountability of those we elect to broad, common interests and enhances their accountability to the narrower set of organized interest groups that help get their favorite candidates elected.
Third, strong and stable parties are essential to the stability of democracy itself. Most of the world’s democracies that have survived 25 years or more have had stable party systems with a low number of parties. In most of these nations, parties dominate elections and the operation of government. Many such democracies (and most of the European ones) allow voters to vote only for parties, instead of individual candidates, in elections and have parliamentary systems in which parties gain control of the legislative and executive branches and rule as highly disciplined teams. American parties, in contrast, are a rag-tag assemblage of electoral individualists.
Walter Dean Burnham of the University of Texas summarizes what parties can do for us: “Political parties, with all their well-known human and structural shortcomings, are the only devices thus far invented by the wit of Western man that can, with some effectiveness, generate countervailing collective power on behalf of the many individually powerless against the relatively few who are individually or organizationally powerful.” Parties are the best available means for linking majority preferences with governmental action because they help to simplify and clarify voting choices. Choosing between two teams rather than among a plethora of individual candidates makes it easier for more citizens to cast an informed vote. That’s one major reason why turnout in just about every other constitutional democracy is well above that of the United States.
To restore this vital party function, we need to make our elections more about parties and their philosophies and less about individual candidates and their personalities. Giving parties more resources with which to do this requires that we not diminish their role in national elections, but rather ensure that they are well funded in ways that minimize apparent or actual corruption.
By encouraging contributions to parties instead of to individual candidates, we can actually limit corruption in American politics. The likelihood of a quid-pro-quo is always greater if the money goes directly to a candidate. By sending money to the parties, we create a “buffer” between campaign contributions and the government officials those contributions seek to influence. The trick is to keep the money from arriving in such large quantities to parties that the buffer virtually disappears, as it has at present.
We need to take several steps to restore parties to a central role in American politics. First, soft-money contributions must be limited to prevent corruption, but preserved to prevent further party decline. A desirable alternative to the McCain-Feingold ban on soft money lies in a bill sponsored by Sens. Bob Kerrey (D) and Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska. Their bill caps soft-money contributions at $60,000 per year and indexes hard-money limits for inflation since 1974, effectively tripling them. The soft-money cap will greatly reduce the likelihood of corruption through soft money and the higher hard-money limits will permit larger hard-money contributions to parties.
Second, we need to keep the hard-money individual and PAC contribution limits to candidates low, while raising them considerably for political parties. Hard-money limits are enforced and recorded by the Federal Election Commission. Currently, individuals can only give a maximum of $20,000 a year to political parties. That limit should be raised to $50,000, while keeping the individual contribution limits to PACs and directly to candidates at $1,000. This will cause more funds to flow to parties, reducing the power of narrow interests in elections and curbing the appearance (and, at times, reality) of corruption linked to direct contributions from PACs to candidates. Even with higher hard-money contribution limits for parties, the Kerry-Hagel cap on soft-money contributions will prevent the “megacontributions” from unions and corporations to parties that plague our current politics.
Third, to make parties more central to campaigns, we need to allocate large blocks of free airtime to state and national parties for them to use to boost their candidates for national office. This can be a remarkably effective cure for electoral individualism. Campaigns are cash-intensive because of the need to buy TV ads, so giving parties power over ads really hits candidates where they live, making soft-money contributions integral to their success. To make parties more important, the blocks of time allocated to them need to be large. State parties could get one hour for each House candidate they field and two or more hours (pro-rated based on the ratio of Senators to Representatives) for their Senate candidates. National parties each need several hours of network time during the fall presidential campaigns.
Fourth, to weaken the role of interest groups in campaigns, we should ban corporations and unions from direct issue-advocacy electioneering. Those issue-advocacy ads that flood our airwaves during fall elections come straight from corporate and union treasuries, confusing voters and empowering narrow interests at the expense of parties. Such ads seek to aid particular candidates, evading laws passed by Congress that ban corporate contributions to candidates from corporations (in 1907) and unions (in 1947). Courts have upheld contribution bans in the past, so a legislative ban on issue-advocacy ads by such interests might well pass constitutional muster. We need to invite the Supreme Court to reverse Buckley v. Valeo on this point.
Fifth, the First Amendment does give individuals the right to run issue ads during campaigns, but the public should have the right to know who is doing the spending. It is difficult to imagine a narrower political interest than a single millionaire or a few wealthy individuals. Elections should involve large, strong parties with broad concerns, not a small number of rich folks with a particular agenda. If we cannot ban that advertising, we can at least strengthen disclosure laws to make it immediately clear who’s bought the ads.
These changes will be weak tea for many campaign- finance reformers. Many would like to remove private money from elections completely, or equalize the spending of campaign money through government regulation. Aside from the political improbability of such reforms, such changes would create more problems than they would solve. Figuring out how to equalize expression in campaigns between often little-known challengers and incumbents is an impossible task, and the Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo explicitly rejected governmental regulation to equalize campaign expression on first amendment grounds. Accordingly, any public financing plan would have to be voluntary (as is presidential campaign finance now). New state public financing laws, recently adopted in Maine and Vermont, however, give all the money directly to candidates and sharply restrict the funds parties can raise to influence elections. That is moving in the wrong direction. Instead of creating “a government that works as hard for the average American as it does for the special interests,” as John McCain desires, these laws have diminished the electoral power of political parties, the institutions with the best worldwide record of stimulating turnout in elections.
The Maine and Vermont laws reveal an unpleasant truth about many campaign-finance reformers. Like the progressive movement of the early 20th century, they are aggressively anti-party. The progressives pushed through a variety of reforms that drastically curtailed the power of parties in American politics–the direct primary, personal voter registration, and the end of patronage hiring. As party power shrank, elections increasingly became contests between multitudes of individual candidates instead of between two parties. The electoral world became more indecipherable to more Americans. Guess what? Voting turnout dropped. And it’s still remarkably low. During the partisan era of 100 years ago, turnouts of 75 percent were common in presidential elections, far above today’s miserable levels, and involving a far less educated electorate than today’s voters. Clearly, parties did something right. It’s time to give them another chance.
Political parties may be part of the problem with electoral politics, but properly reviving them is very much part of the solution. We need to roll back corrupt practices while strengthening parties. Campaign-finance reformers need to understand that if they want robust campaigns and high turnout, they need to learn how to love political parties, not destroy them.
Steven E. Schier is chair of the department of political science at Carleton College and the author of By Invitation Only: The Rise of Exclusive Politics in the United States.