Washington's Best Kept Secret: McCain-Feingold Works

It’s been seven years since the McCain-Feingold bill was passed, yet the measure (known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act or BCRA) is still the subject of a massive amount of disinformation. 

Every time there is a report on the problems with the current campaign finance system, political pundits line up to find a way to blame it on McCain-Feingold.  And, their critiques of the law constantly morph. There are still millions of dollars in politics?  Blame BCRA.  Bundling is flourishing?  Blame BCRA.  527 organizations continue to flaunt the law?  Blame BCRA.  The Federal Election Commission remains feckless? Blame BCRA.

Admittedly, BCRA’s critics have been remarkably successful at influencing the public perception of the bill enacted in 2002 that banned unlimited “soft money” contributions by corporations, unions and wealthy individuals.  They repeatedly label BCRA a failure by redefining and misrepresenting what BCRA was supposed to do.  They couldn’t be more wrong.  In fact, the opposite is true – BCRA has been remarkably successful.

For example, critics like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) testified that passage of the law would mean the death of the national party committees.  Yet in the last two elections since BCRA was enacted, the national parties have flourished, raising more hard money than they raised previously in hard and soft money combined. 

The parties, weaned off of the corporate and union treasury funds, were forced to engage with actual people.  In the process, they have begun to rediscover what political parties are supposed to be about – groups of like-minded individuals working to get their candidates elected.  That is called citizen participation - a healthy activity in a democracy.  And in the non-presidential year of 2006, the parties did just fine, thank you – raking in more than $900 million.  While unlimited soft money contributions and thus large donors were the primary source of party money in 2002, small contributions from individuals were the principal source of funds in the 2006 races.   In sum, the parties became more robust and raised even more money for their political activities than in the pre-BCRA days. 

Even more telling was the historic campaign of President Barack Obama.  His fundraising efforts, achieved by going after more small donors than ever before, were totally consistent with what BCRA envisioned: more people than ever participating in the system.

Despite the never-ending chorus from its critics, McCain-Feingold was never an attempt to remove money from politics.  The goal was to break the dependence of elected officials on massive contributions from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals, and thereby reduce the potential for corruption in the democratic process.  Clearly the law has succeeded on this front.

BCRA was a triage bill – a bill designed to deal with the most egregious problems in the system at that moment in time.  The original version, which had a comprehensive solution with spending limits and public resources for candidates, had no chance of passing in the early years of this decade with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s “K Street Project” in full swing.  But the need to address the out-of-control soft money and the campaign ads masquerading as ‘issue discussion’ was urgent.

While setting the record straight won’t stop the disinformation campaign on BCRA, it should remind those who continue to care about the role that large money plays in our elections that change – meaningful change -- can indeed be achieved, even if it is not as big and bold as many people wish.  Reform comes slowly in this town, at least when it comes to Congress reforming itself.  But there’s a big difference this time around: the man in the White House says he wants to lead the reform race. And that gives real hope to those of us interested in building on successful reforms like BCRA.


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