CAMPAIGN SPENDING in the 2004 presidential race has already cracked the $1 billion mark, almost twice the amount at this time four years ago. Outside groups with ties to the candidates and political parties are scooping up six-, seven- and even eight-figure soft-money checks and spending the money on slash-and-burn TV spots. The Bush campaign announced yesterday that it would go to court to force the Federal Election Commission to rein in these so-called 527 groups. So the new campaign finance law is an abject failure, right? Not in our view.
The McCain-Feingold law, which prohibited the political parties from raising and spending soft money, wasn't a magic elixir to cure all the ills of the campaign finance system with a single legislative dose. But even its most ardent promoters didn't claim that it was. In fact, despite the current uproar over Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and other 527s, the law has succeeded in curing the worst symptom of an out-of-control campaign finance system: politicians soliciting huge soft-money checks from interests to which they find themselves beholden.
Meanwhile, its most worrisome potential side effects have not turned out to be anywhere near as serious as anticipated. Critics warned that the law would weaken the parties by starving them of cash. Instead, the parties have managed to wean themselves from soft money: According to the most recent figures, each has raised more hard money so far this cycle than they did in hard- and soft-money donations combined four years ago.
Democrats also feared that their party's embrace of the law amounted to a suicide pact, because Democrats have traditionally lagged far behind Republicans in collecting hard money. Republicans' traditional cash advantage has widened, but not nearly as much as many party strategists feared. As of June 30, the last period for which comparable figures are available, the Democrats' national party committees had collected $230 million in hard money this election, more than double the $102 million they raised in the 2000 race. The Republicans also doubled their tally, raking in $381 million, up from $178 million in the 2000 election.
That leaves the question of the degree to which outside groups that spend soft-money checks to influence the election have undermined the effectiveness of the law. As most campaign finance experts anticipated, the groups have indeed become influential players, particularly on the Democratic side, where -- despite the attention to the Swift boat ads -- almost all the money reported so far has been collected. Of the $154 million raised by groups linked to the presidential race through June 30, $145 million has gone to Democratic organizations. By contrast, the Democratic party committees had raised $126 million in soft money at the same point four years ago.
It's clearly troubling to have groups whose clear intent is to influence federal elections playing by different, looser rules than others involved in the process. The federal election law requires groups to register with the FEC -- and most important, to abide by strict donation limits -- if their "major purpose" is to influence a federal election. It's tough to see how the Swift Boat vets or the Democratic groups don't meet that test. And the involvement of marquee-name politicians in supporting the groups, enabled by the FEC's lax reading of the prohibition on federal lawmakers soliciting soft money for the groups, adds to the risk of such groups re-creating the problems of the old system under a different guise.
At the same time, such groups have been operating for several election cycles now. Congress already passed a law requiring them to register and disclose their donors to the IRS, and it was aware of them when it approved McCain-Feingold, with its looser restrictions on outside groups. As worrisome as 527s may be, the fact that they are burgeoning does not signal that McCain-Feingold has failed.