A Reply to Ornstein and Corrado

The fifth anniversary of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (also known as BCRA or McCain-Feingold) has arrived, and two of its defenders, Norman Ornstein and Anthony Corrado, took to the pages of The Washington Post yesterday to counter “a widespread view that BCRA did not work, that campaign reform has been a failure.”

They argue that McCain-Feingold has led to “the spectacular resurgence of political parties.” But the political parties were not in decline prior to 2002. They had been reviving since at least the mid-1990s, in part because of the resources that came from party soft money. Ornstein and Corrado say many people thought BCRA would hurt the parties. But, they say, that did not happen. Evidence? “In the two elections held before BCRA, the national parties raised a total of $2.1 billion, nearly half of it in unregulated ‘soft money’…In the two elections since, the parties raised exactly the same amount, but all in ‘hard money.’”

Notice the trick here. Ornstein and Corrado are comparing party fundraising in 2006 to party fundraising in 2002. They show that under BCRA in 2006 the parties raised as much hard money as they did soft and hard money in 2002. But that’s not what we want to know! We want to know whether the parties raised as much or more money in 2006 under BCRA as they would have in 2006 without BCRA. If they did, BCRA didn’t have much effect on fundraising.

As it happens, total party soft money fundraising doubled from mid-term election to mid-term election from 1992 onward. In 2006, the parties would have raised an additional $500 million in party soft money if BCRA had not passed. To be sure, some of the soft money that would have been raised turned up as hard money contributions to the parties in 2006 or as contributions to 527 groups. Even taking those into account, I suspect the parties would have raised  at least tens of millions of dollars more in 2006 if BCRA had not banned soft money fundraising. So it is not accurate to say that “our parties are richer.”  

According to Ornstein and Corrado, BCRA also made the parties “stronger at the grassroots,” citing party building and get-out-the-vote efforts. Yet in 2004 it was 527 groups (whose funding is not covered by BCRA) who supported the organizations that got out the Democratic vote in battleground states. By law, the 527 efforts could not be coordinated with the parties. As a result, the multi-million dollar contributions by George Soros and others did nothing to build up the Democratic party. In fact, many observers think the disjunction between the 527 get-out-the-vote effort and the Democratic party organization hampered Sen. Kerry’s presidential bid. As for party building, Howard Dean, the current head of the Democratic party, wanted to build up his party in 2006 even in states where Democrats had done poorly in the past. Dean’s party building effort came up short for lack of money. Had the Democrats been able to raise soft money, they would have had enough to both fight the 2006 election and build up their party across the board.

Ornstein and Corrado credit BCRA for a purported rise in small donors to the parties. By cutting off soft money, they imply, BCRA forced the parties to find small donors. They ignore two other factors. The Internet cut the cost of finding contributions and of making contributions. Meanwhile, the Iraq war and rising party competition mobilized donors and voters who otherwise might have stayed on the sidelines.

Our authors then confront the question of incumbent protection, an argument they associate with Newt Gingrich. They note that 22 House incumbents and 6 Senate incumbents lost in 2006. Ornstein and Corrado do not note that all 28 of those losing incumbents were Republican which might suggest a national wave of unhappiness directed at GOP candidates. BCRA did not offer enough incumbent protection for those 28 former members of Congress. But that does not prove that the Democratic wave of 2006 might not have been stronger in the absence of BCRA. As I argued earlier, their leaders believe the Democrats left 15 to 20 House seats on the table in 2006. Without BCRA, they would have had more party soft money to have pursued those 15 to 20 seats. Campaign finance regulations protect incumbents in more ways than one.

The effects on Democratic candidates and the Democratic party are important. 90 percent of congressional Democrats voted for BCRA. They believed the law would help Democratic candidates and their party. If we are honest, that partisan outcome was a leading, if not the primary, purpose of BCRA. (If you doubt that, ask the congressional Republicans of 2002: 80 percent of them voted against BCRA). So the question lingers: if Democrats ended up with less money and fewer House seats with BCRA than without it, was the law a success for Democrats in Congress and in the nation at large?

Ornstein and Corrado try hard to deflect this question. They identify opposition to BCRA with Republicans, conservative activists, and ideologues. Their Democratic readers are supposed to think, as they always have thought: Ick! Who wants to agree with stupid and evil people like that! Especially about money in politics. 

But that rhetorical gambit, like much of campaign finance “reform,” has grown stale. It’s not just the opponents of liberalism who are having doubts about Sen. McCain and his handiwork. I am certain that the smart, tough people who run Democratic congressional campaigns know BCRA cost the party seats. An important left-leaning expert on campaign finance has raised questions about the failures of the law. He also reports that the foundations that gave over $100 million to lobby for BCRA are wondering why they did so. That’s a lot of money for so little in return.

Not surprisingly, Ornstein and Corrado omit other consequences of BCRA. The law prohibited broadcast advertising within sixty days of a general election for a motion picture criticizing the current president of the United States. It also prohibited advertising within that time frame urging citizens to contact their representatives in Washington (if those representatives were running for re-election). We have no idea how much political speech was suppressed by BCRA’s ban on some issue ads.

BCRA’s prohibitions also fostered money moving to 527 groups followed by a regulatory push to eliminate such groups. If 527 groups are done away with, money may well go to nonprofit groups which will be followed by efforts to tightly control the political activities of such groups. BCRA has brought under state control a larger part of private political activity than ever before; it has also fomented a regulatory push that may yet deeply invade what’s left of private financing of political struggle.

The authors also omit BCRA’s failure to live up to the promises made by its supporters on the floor of the U.S. Senate. (I document these goals in the first chapter of The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform). BCRA did not restore public confidence in government, largely because campaign finance regulations have nothing to do with trust in government. It did not prevent corruption among several Republican members of Congress (and perhaps, one Democrat).

Ornstein and Corrado suggest the law reduced the number of negative ads. But that’s pure speculation. Judging by the complaints of the “reform community,” campaigns remain as negative as ever. Of course, negative advertising is good for American democracy, and in any case, advocates always said campaign finance regulations concerned money and not the content of speech. If BCRA really sought to improve the content of speech, doesn’t that mean the law violated the First Amendment from the start?

BCRA has had three other results, each hopeful in its own way.  

BCRA has had random political effects. People on the left, who generally support such restrictions on money in politics, discovered they too could be “reformed.” This discovery may reduce support for future restrictions on speech.

The law also fostered a successful bipartisan coalition against campaign finance regulation when BCRA’s defenders tried to regulate and restrict political speech on the Internet. Perhaps the Internet will remain a speech zone free of campaign finance regulation.

The law also appears to be a major obstacle to Sen. John McCain’s quest for the Republican presidential nomination. Perhaps in the future ambitious politicians will consider the electoral costs of supporting restrictions on speech. Emerging presidential candidate Fred Thompson, who voted for BCRA now says: “I wonder if we shouldn’t just take off the limits and have full disclosure with harsh penalties for not reporting everything on the Internet immediately.”

Neither misleading numbers nor rhetorical gambits can change the reality that BCRA has failed its supporters and the nation. Perhaps a new start with money and politics, one more mindful of the First Amendment, is in order.