Some things never change. Liberals and good-government types were cheering last year when President Bush signed into law the heralded McCain-Feingold Bill, meant to limit the flow of big money into political campaigns. The cheers were premature. Last week, when a three-judge panel in Washington struck down several of the law’s key provisions, many of those same folks were breathing big sighs of relief. That, too, may be premature.
The panel was a special federal court assembled to decide the case quickly, so the rules of campaign finance can be sorted out in time for the 2004 elections. However, instead of simplifying things, the judges issued — by a margin of two Republican appointees to one Democratic pick — a dizzyingly complex set of cautions, considerations and caveats. At 1,638 pages, the ruling left the issue nearly as confused as ever. It will now go to the Supreme Court, where the matter apparently will be settled.
The relief coming from some progressive quarters has to do with the district court’s restoration of soft-money contributions to the political parties by corporations and labor unions. Soft money, originally a way to get the private sector to finance the basic structures of the political parties, had become a huge loophole through which vast sums were being channeled through the parties to the candidates. The flood-tide violated the longstanding and sensible ban on corporations financing individual campaigns.
But McCain-Feingold’s fix threw the baby out with the bathwater, damaging the national parties themselves. It was especially damaging to the Democrats. Their individual fundraising prowess has long lagged behind that of the Republicans. During the 2002 election cycle, for instance, the Republican National Committee raised $164 million in hard money and $114 million in soft money, while the Democrats raised only $67 million in hard money, but $94 million in soft money. McCain-Feingold intensified that disadvantage. By hamstringing wealthy individuals — and largely shutting out unions — the law hurt the Democrats. The new court finding could restore some badly needed balance to our rickety two-party system.
The catch is that last week’s court ruling is essentially a provisional one, clearing the way for a fast-track appeal to the Supreme Court. As we approach the 2004 presidential election, our campaign finance system is now in the hands of the justices who settled the 2000 election.