Commentary

‘Soft Money’ Aids Democracy

This essay originally appeared in USA Today on Sept. 30, 2000.
Critics say “soft money” corrupts the political process. In fact, such contributions strengthen our democracy. We should be wary of restricting soft money.

The First Amendment protects our right to contribute to political campaigns, including giving soft money. Government only can ban contributions to prevent corruption. Advocates of a ban say soft money corrupts the process, but they lack concrete evidence. Without such proof, we shouldn’t restrict a fundamental constitutional right. According to law professor Lillian BeVier, a ban would be “an unprecedented restriction on political activity … whose scope far exceeds what the First Amendment allows.”

Even if the Constitution allowed a ban, soft money has other advantages. It goes to the political parties, not the candidates. By strengthening parties, soft money helps American democracy in three ways:

  • Parties unite individuals and groups behind a general program for the whole society. As political scientist Michael Munger says, “Parties are the antidote to narrow, particular interests.” If we ban soft money, special interests will play a larger role in elections. Should we deny our nation an antidote to the poison of special-interest politics?
  • The parties are a buffer against corruption. Parties solicit soft money and spend it supporting their candidates. The winners are beholden to the party and not individual donors. Soft money actually poses less danger of corruption than money given directly to a candidate’s campaign. The Democratic Party can hardly corrupt Al Gore; the same goes for the Republicans and George W. Bush.
  • The parties’ use of soft money can increase electoral competition. America needs more competition: About 98% of congressional incumbents are re-elected. Soft money can help challengers compete with incumbents. Parties make sure soft money ends up where it’s needed most. Right now control over the House of Representatives is up for grabs, and both parties are spending their soft money on races in which their candidates have a good chance of winning. Without soft money, many of those elections would have been uncontested.

Banning soft money would contravene the First Amendment, weaken political parties and lessen electoral competition. Banning soft money is a bad idea.

John Samples is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Representative Government.