'Soft money' is the watchword of this year's campaign finance reform debate,
with both candidates promising reform even as they raise record amounts of
money. It is estimated that both parties will raise over $500 million in soft
money this year, twice as much as in 1996. Under current laws, individuals
can donate up to $1,000 each to a candidate in the primaries and
general-election, while political-action committees are limited to $5000 each.
But there is no limit on 'soft money'--donations by corporations, lobbyists
and unions to a party (rather than an individual candidate), which now account
for most of the money raised during campaigns. Technically, soft money cannot
be spent on candidates, but it is used for purposes like 'issues advertising'
which directly benefits them.
When asked, Americans consistently say the campaign finance process should be
overhauled, but they do not give the issue a very high priority. Less than one tenth of one
percent of Americans give $1000 or more for political causes, and this is an
issue which does not touch their lives directly--although campaign finance reformers will tell you that no issue affects us more. A bill to ban soft money, pushed in part by Sen.
John McCain who made it the centerpiece of his strong insurgent campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, failed to pass in Congress last October. But the House did pass
legislation this June requiring political advocacy groups to disclose their
donors and expenditures. Small as it was, this was the first change in campaign fianance rules in two
Neither candidate has much credibility as a reformer, though both are now
trying to don that mantle.
Al Gore did co-sponsor several campaign finance reform bills during his years
in Congress. But he has admitted to making illegal fundraising calls from
his White House office and until recently faced the prospect of an
Independent Counsel investigation for soliciting money at a Buddhist temple in San Francisco. Gore now says he has learned from his mistakes and will ban soft money if
elected.. "I promise you that campaign finance reform will be the very first
bill that Joe Lieberman and I send to the United States Congress, " he said
during his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. This prompted
Green Party candidate Ralph Nader to reply: "He talked populist, but buys into
corporate power. Give back the money, Mr. Gore."
George Bush has raised more money than any other candidate in history. He has
no spending limits for his campaign because he has refused federal matching
funds which require spending limits of approximately $67 million in a
presidential campaign. His credibility as a reformer was undermined during
the Republican primaries by McCain. Bush has made fewer reform proposals than Gore, and he
barely mentioned the issue in his own convention address. He supports public
disclosure of all funds received by candidates and was the first candidate to
do so voluntarily, releasing the information on the Internet.
Should "soft money" be banned?
Gore thinks all soft money contributions from corporations, non-profits, unions
and individuals should be banned. He is not accepting money from political
action committees during this campaign. He challenged Mr Bush to hold
twice- weekly debates instead of spending money on issues advertising. He
thinks TV networks should be required to give candidates free air time. This
position has been criticized as unrealistic by many observers who think the
better approach might be to require public accounting of the money. As Jonathan Rausch of the Washington Post has observed: "Every
time you try to plug some new 'loophole,' the laws become more tangled and
self-contradictory while the money dances further out of reach. Reform can be
successful only to the extent that it focuses on realistic goals such as
accountability and disclosure." (August 27, 2000).
Bush proposes banning soft money contributions from corporations and unions but
not individuals. He would also prohibit making such contributions when
Congress is in session. He has refused federal matching funds and also
rejected the idea of banning issues advertising using soft money. He has
proposed 'Paycheck Protection' legislation so that union members can decide
whether to direct money to political activities instead of having it automatically deducted from the checks.
Should elections be publicly funded?
Gore thinks America should eventually move towards public funding of elections.
He proposes establishing an endowment fund from donations by individuals,
corporations and unions toalling $7.1 billion over seven years, then using the interest from the fund to pay for House and
Senate campaigns, beginning in 2008. Candidates would not be allowed to take money
from other sources.
Bush does not believe in public funding of elections. He proposes that the $1000
legal limit for individual donations should be removed and all money should be
given to candidates legally, so long as it is then publicly accounted for.
FRONTLINE's report "Washington's Other Scandal" looks at how both
political parties contrived to bend and break the law on campaign
Search the Center for Responsive Politics' Database of "Soft Money"
Examine Common Cause's profiles and analysis of top donors
The New York Times Campaign Finance Issue Updates (requires free registration)
Find out which special interests are really behind "issue advocacy" ads
Use the Investigative Reporters and Editors' Campaign Finance Database
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"Gore's Campaign Finance Reform Plan" (Jacob Weisberg, Slate)
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