Now that the Supreme Court has upheld the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), better known as the McCain-Feingold law, by a 5-to-4 majority, is the need for campaign finance reform over? A surprising number of people seem to think so. First there are members of Congress, who are said to be experiencing “reform fatigue,” overwhelmed by the technicalities of the law they passed (the joke in the cloakrooms is that BCRA stands for “Before Campaigning, Retain an Attorney”). Then there are the cynics in the press who have been saying all along that campaign reform can’t work. Now they point to the recent emergence of independent committees, known as Section 527 organizations after the relevant part of the IRS tax code, as proving their point. These committees are funded with soft money from wealthy donors like philanthropist George Soros. And finally there are progressives who have begun wondering aloud whether more reform is needed if big donors like Soros will pay to level the playing field while Howard Dean’s small-donor dynamo reinvents public financing through the generosity of private givers.
All these people are wrong. First of all, Congress cannot and should not stop now. All BCRA does is end the raising and spending of unlimited soft-money donations by federal party committees and candidates running for federal office and constrain the financing of some ads aimed at helping or hurting candidates. These were big loopholes through which about $500 million from corporations, unions and rich individuals flowed in the last presidential election cycle, out of a total of $2.9 billion. But now Congress ought to deal with the fact that the remaining system of financing campaigns is grossly unfair and unrepresentative. Just one-quarter of 1 percent of Americans make a campaign contribution of $200 or more, and this group is disproportionately white, wealthy, male and conservative. Ninety percent of the more than $2 billion contributed by individuals to federal candidates and parties in the 2000 and 2002 elections came from ZIP codes that are predominantly non-Hispanic white, even though nearly a third of Americans are of color, according a new report, “Color of Money 2003” by Public Campaign, the Fannie Lou Hamer Project and the William C. Velasquez Institute (see Patricia J. Williams, page 10, for more details). Our attention ought to be on addressing that fundamental divide, wherein an adult resident of Beverly Hills 90210 gives, on average, $466 in campaign contributions while the average adult resident of Compton 90221 gives just 60 cents.
As for the notion that reform is for naught because wealthy interests are already finding new loopholes–when has this not been the case? Politics in America has always been a conflict between organized money and organized people. To be sure, BCRA will reduce some of the most obscene corruption, because some vested interests will decide that giving a big check to a Section 527 group is a far less certain method of buying access to politicians than the now-banned method of giving soft money directly to party legislative leaders. And some big money will flow into 527s, as is already starting to happen, with troubling results–like the hard-hitting ads attacking Dean by a shadowy group calling itself Americans for Jobs, Health Care and Progressive Values. Congress should insist on more timely disclosure of who is funding these groups, but their existence does not mean ipso facto that reform has failed.
Finally, for those progressives who think the rise of altruistic sugar daddies like Soros and of Dean’s legions of small donors may insure a fair fight next fall against George W. Bush’s quarter-billion bankroll, we offer these cautions: Every time liberals have found a new way to focus their money, the innovation has been ruthlessly exploited by the other side. Soros’s giving is stimulating Republican fundraising. Indeed, Bush’s campaign recently sent out an end-of-the-year e-mail appeal laughably called “Grassroots vs. Liberal Billionaires.” When wealth is so unevenly distributed, average folks can never win the money game–in fact, they can’t even win it temporarily without selling out their principles. And it’s far from clear that the Dean model can be replicated in other races, especially those lower on the ballot, where the pressure to raise money is greater than ever. We still have to change the rules of politics so that organizing people matters more than organizing money, by offering candidates who demonstrate a broad base of voter support with full public financing of their campaigns. Call it democratizing the process if you suffer from “reform fatigue.” Just don’t call it over.