Campaign Finance Success

Friday, November 3, 2006

THE MCCAIN-FEINGOLD campaign finance law was supposed to be -- or so its critics warned -- a body blow to political parties. Starved of the six- and seven-figure "soft money" checks to which they had become addicted, opponents said, the parties would wither, their influence eclipsed by outside groups that remained free to accept unlimited sums. Democrats, who were especially dependent on soft money, would find themselves at a fatal disadvantage.

None of that has happened. Not in 2004, when the parties raised a combined $1.5 billion ($785 million by Republicans, $684 million by Democrats) -- amazingly, more than their hard and soft money combined in any previous election. And not in 2006, the first midterm campaign conducted under the new rules, when the combined party fundraising was $768 million as of mid-October ($438 million by Republicans, $330 million by Democrats), according to a study by the Campaign Finance Institute. The parties, now limited to maximum annual contributions of $26,700 from individuals, haven't recouped all the soft money they once vacuumed up, but they have rebounded far more robustly than anyone had predicted.

Instead of being hobbled by the abolition of soft money, Democrats are actually more financially competitive with Republicans than before. At this point in the 2002 election cycle, their total fundraising was $185 million behind the Republicans' figure; this year, that gap has shrunk to $108 million. The Democrats' House and Senate campaign arms have more than doubled their hard-money fundraising from four years ago.

All of this is welcome news. Unlimited soft-money checks were a corrupting influence; they needed to be done away with no matter the impact on the political parties. That soft money could be abolished and the parties remain a vibrant political force is a double benefit. Indeed, as a financial matter, the biggest difference between the 2004 and 2006 elections is the relatively more muted role of the outside groups known as 527s.

This remains a flawed system; it looks good only by comparison to the even more flawed previous regime. And the 2006 campaign has pointed up one particularly ridiculous aspect of campaign finance law that ought to be fixed before 2008: The rules limit how much political parties can spend on candidates in consultation with them but allow parties to spend unlimited amounts on behalf of candidates so long as they act "independently." Thus there is the spectacle of a Republican National Committee ad attacking Tennessee Democratic Senate candidate Harold E. Ford Jr. that the chairman of the RNC says he can't control -- because it was produced by an "independent" arm of the RNC. There's no good reason to force the political parties to engage in this charade of setting up independent groups. In fact, as the Ford ad shows, there's every reason to set up a system that requires those who underwrite ads to take responsibility for them.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company