Policy Analysis No. 393

Making the World Safer for Incumbents: The Consequences of McCain-Feingold-Cochran

Executive Summary

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), joined by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), have introduced legislation adding new regulations on campaign finance. Their proposed law bans “soft money” going to political parties, restricts advertising by for-profit corporations and labor unions, and greatly increases the ambit of federal election law.

Soft money contributions to campaigns grew out of efforts by Congress and the Federal Election Commission to enhance political parties and federalism. Soft money accounts for only 15 percent of all campaign spending.

McCain says the new regulations will prevent corruption in Washington, but he has not shown that soft money corrupts legislators or elections. The debate over “corruption” seems to really be a difference of opinion about the meaning of good representation.

Expert opinion indicates that McCain-Feingold-Cochran would reduce electoral competition significantly and decrease turnout on Election Day by 2 percent.

McCain-Feingold-Cochran will not drive soft money out of politics. Such funding is likely to turn up in future elections as independent expenditures by interest groups. McCain’s bill seeks to limit such spending by labor unions, for-profit corporations, and even many nonprofit corporations. Senator McCain has also indicated that he hopes to regulate advertising by advocacy groups like the NAACP. The proposed restrictions are a direct and scandalous effort to protect incumbents from criticism during elections. McCain’s ad ban will be found unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

McCain argues that his bill will prevent special interests from influencing government. In fact, three special interests—incumbents, the media, and interest groups in general—will benefit from McCain-Feingold-Cochran. Ironically, McCain’s bill would generally enhance interest group influence at the cost of political parties and candidates.

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