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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Case for U.S. Campaign Finance Law

The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments Monday in a case that will very likely determine whether America is able to cleanse its democracy of the poison of huge special-interest campaign contributions. The justices are returning early from summer break to hear a challenge to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. The law closes two gaping campaign finance loopholes, reining in corrupt "soft money" expenditures and bogus "issue ads." It falls squarely within Congress's power to regulate federal elections, and does not infringe on any constitutional rights. The Supreme Court should uphold the law in its entirety.

The bane of campaign finance reform these days is "soft money." Corporations and unions have long been barred from contributing to federal campaigns, and individuals are limited in the amounts they can contribute. But they have all learned to evade these limitations by giving to political parties. Defenders of McCain-Feingold rightly compare the role parties play in the process to "offshore banks."

Everyone involved is in on the soft-money charade. Parties wink when they accept money secretly earmarked for Senator X's campaign. And when the donor comes by later for a favor, Senator X is well aware of the soft-money gift. Soft money has overwhelmed federal campaigns, making a joke of limits on campaign contributions. In 2000, the national parties raised nearly half a billion dollars in soft money, 60 percent of which came from just 800 deep-pocketed donors. And as anyone who watches television knows, phony issue ads paid for by special interests are ubiquitous in the weeks leading up to federal elections.

The special interest groups, political incumbents and others who are challenging McCain-Feingold argue it infringes on their free speech rights. But the law does not prohibit any speech. It simply, and appropriately, limits how campaign speech can be financed. Critics of McCain-Feingold also claim that it weakens political parties. But parties have no right, and no reason, to act as walking, talking campaign-finance loopholes. Deprived of their role as a passive pipeline for soft money, they will spend more time on grassroots organizing, fundraising for their own campaigns and other activities.

At issue is more than a single piece of cleanup legislation. The issue, in a very real sense, is democracy itself and whether Americans must be resigned to a campaign finance system that elevates wealthy favor-seekers over ordinary citizens. The special interests lined up to challenge the law have tried, in sky-is-falling fashion, to present it as a complete transformation of campaign finance. It is not that. It simply plugs a few loopholes in the existing law that are rendering it meaningless. If the Supreme Court holds that Congress cannot make these small but critically important fixes, it will be condemning the nation to a democracy forever held captive to the corrupting influence of moneyed special interests.

This comment appeared as an editorial in The New York Times.