The Republican Party’s 2008 platform contained not a mention of campaign finance reform in its 68 pages. The omission was in deference to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the GOP presidential nominee and co-author of McCain-Feingold. The groundbreaking 2002 measure banned unlimited donations to parties, placed new strictures on political advertising and tried to roll back the ability of wealthy individuals to self-fund their candidacies.
Rather than tarnish their standard bearer by challenging his signature legislative achievement, the platform’s authors skirted the issue entirely.
What a difference a presidential election cycle makes. A series of court decisions striking down parts of McCain-Feingold — and a new nominee — have led to a new plank in the 2012 platform on regulation of campaign spending.
It says there should be next to none.
“We oppose any restrictions or conditions that would discourage Americans from exercising their constitutional right to enter the political fray or limit their commitment to their ideals,” it declares on page 12. The platform calls for repeal of what remains of McCain-Feingold — mainly the ban on “soft” money contributions to parties — and either raising or abolishing donation limits. It also opposes passage of any law that would weaken the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which did away with prohibitions against corporate or union spending on elections. The platform specifically mentioned the Democrat-supported DISCLOSE Act, which would require independent groups to list the names of those donating more than $10,000. The bill died in the Senate this year. The plank also calls for no regulation of political speech on the Internet.
The enduring truism about party platforms is that every four years they are drafted, debated, voted on and forgotten. But Republican National Committee member James Bopp Jr., who drafted the campaign finance section, said it matters because it speaks to long-standing sentiment inside the party.
“I’m just glad we can reflect what the grass-roots of the party believe,” said Bopp, an Indiana lawyer who has worked for years to deregulate campaign funding. “They support the First Amendment and they support no campaign finance restrictions, by and large, ” he said.
Campaign finance reform advocates said the platform language was unexpected only in its sweeping opposition to limits.
“The only surprise is that it is as blatant an affirmation of big-money politics as I’ve seen in print as an official statement,” said Nick Nyhart, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund, an advocacy group that supports regulating campaign spending. “It is a complete endorsement of the increased role of big money in politics.”
Like other portions of the platform, the campaign finance plank reflects the party’s steepening conservative tilt.
In 1992, the GOP called for elimination of corporate and union political action committees. Four years later, it endorsed “full and immediate disclosure of all contributions” and a crackdown on soft money.
By 2004, the conservative trend emerged. The party firmly established campaign funding as a First Amendment issue with no government restrictions on individual political expression. But it also called for “full and timely disclosure on the Internet of all campaign contributions.”
Bopp and other supporters of minimal regulation said there has been no retreat from the idea of transparency.
“We’re not opposing any disclosure rules that we’ve supported in the past,” said Bradley Smith, a former Federal Election Commission chairman and now chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics, a group that advocates for lighter regulation of campaign finance.
They said the DISCLOSE Act was a partisan measure that would have gone beyond anything the party previously supported — targeting for exposure individual donors to multi-purpose advocacy groups who may not be involved in campaign activity. One provision called for an organization’s top five contributors to be listed in ads. But supporters said donors could remain anonymous by stipulating that their money not be used for campaign purposes.
Democrats have yet to unveil the 2012 platform that delegates will vote on in Charlotte next week. DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse did not return a phone call Wednesday afternoon.
They might take a cue from President Obama, who sided with liberal activist groups when he suggested Wednesday that a constitutional amendment might be needed to blunt Citizens United and the rise of the super PACS that can spend unlimited sums.
In a chat with the Web community Reddit, Obama wrote: “Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.”
For previous Influence Industry columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.