by Harry Kresky
Senator Mitch McConnell argues that the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill should be defeated because the ban on "soft" money will weaken the Democratic and Republican Parties. Many Americans (the majority of whom are neither Democrats nor Republicans) might welcome this, but McConnell, no doubt, hopes his argument will sway the 100 Democratic and Republican senators who will vote on the bill.
McConnell's approach raises some interesting questions about the relationship between campaign-finance reform and political parties.
Why are the two major parties able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in soft money? And, more importantly, why do businesses and trade associations often give to both parties? The answer is that the parties not only dominate the electoral arena, they dominate the government itself. Congress, for example, is organized on a party basis in spite of the fact that there is nothing in the Constitution which even suggests that this should be the case.
Seating arrangements go according to party affiliation; committee and sub-committees are divided along party lines, each with its own paid staff.
It's rare for a president to appoint someone to a key government post who is not a member of his own party.
The Federal Election Commission consists of three Democratic and three Republican commissioners. New York law requires that local election commissioners and poll workers be chosen from lists submitted by the two major parties.
What soft money buys is access, through the party, to the levers of government and public policy. It's better than investing in a single candidate.
Take the Senate: Each party can now deliver 50 votes, or close to it. It's not clear how restricting the money given to the parties would solve this problem.
It would only make it cheaper for those seeking to influence the parties' behavior and prompt them to find ways other than direct contributions to do so.
Moreover, such a "solution" would have a negative effect on the efforts to build new parties and new kinds of political formations.
When you have a monopoly, such as the Democrats and Republicans have on the American political process, and restrictions are then placed on the entry of capital, the net effect is to help preserve the monopoly. That's not the kind of political reform independents are looking for.
The problem, therefore, is not the money, but the parties. Real electoral reform means breaking the two-party stranglehold on government and the electoral apparatus. Parties may have a legitimate role to play in bringing together like-minded people to support a candidate or group of candidates.
Indeed, their right to do so is protected by the First Amendment.
But the First Amendment does not protect any right of parties to control the apparatus by which candidates are elected or the government itself. Indeed, such an arrangement creates a direct conflict of interest. In the electoral arena, it means that the people regulating the process have a direct stake in the outcome. For independent and third-party voters and candidates, it's a little like going to play a baseball game only to find that the home team has chosen the umpires.
Ironically, the explosion of soft money could have been curtailed if the FEC had followed the recommendation of its own general counsel and opened up investigations into the abuses of the 1996 presidential election when the Democratic and Republican National Committees colluded with their candidates to circumvent existing law by converting soft-money contributions into hard-money expenditures.
All of this gets us back to McConnell's argument. Predictably, as the campaign-finance reform debate unfolds, it appears more and more that the outcome will be determined on the basis of what is good for only the two parties.
The Democrats, who do worse than the Republicans at raising hard money but raise more soft money, fear that to turn off the soft-money spigot will leave them at a competitive disadvantage. Republicans are concerned about restrictions on "electioneering communication," which would limit the ability of wealthy individuals to spend large amounts of money on campaign advertising.
Real change means severing the relationship between the parties and the administering of our elections and the making of public policy. Why can't our elections be non-partisan (the ballot could list the names of candidates without party labels) and our public officials (elected and appointed) required to sever their connection with the parties?
This reform might make the whole debate about soft money go away and level the playing field for independents and third-party candidates alike.
Harry Kresky is a member of the Independence Party's Executive Committee.
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