Straight Talk on Campaign Finance: Separating Fact from Fiction Paper No. 1

Democracy and Campaign Finance Reform

January 1, 2000

One of a series of six papers produced by the Brennan Center regarding Campaign Finance Reform: Democracy and Campaign Finance Reform.

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• “Leave the perception of impropriety unanswered, and the cynical assumption that
large donors call the tune could jeopardize the willingness of voters to take part in
democratic governance.”  Nixon v. Shrink Missouri PAC, 145 L.Ed.2d. 886, 900 (2000).
Last year, with these words, the Supreme Court underscored the rationale now driving
Congress to enact campaign finance reform.


• Reform opponents work overtime to ignore mountains of evidence that “large donors call the
tune,” and that voters increasingly are unwilling to “take part in democratic governance.”  But
the facts tell a different story.


• Forty-nine percent of eligible voters – 100 million Americans – elected not to vote in the
2000 elections.


• In the 2000 election, the Republican and Democratic parties spent $456 million in unregu-
lated money, which came from corporate and union treasuries and from the bank accounts
of wealthy individuals.  There were no limits on the size of these “soft money” contributions.


• Thirty-eight percent of this party soft money – $173 million – was spent on television and
radio ads aired to influence elections.  These campaign appeals masquerading as issue ads
constituted by far the largest category of soft money spending by the parties.


• The 2000 election was the first in history in which the Republican and Democratic parties
financed their television ad buys primarily with soft money.

• Added to the $173 million in party soft money was another $46 million in unregulated money
spent by special interest groups on sham issue ads.  Like the party soft money, the money
spent by groups on televised campaign appeals faced no restrictions on the source of the
funding or the size of the contributions.  Moreover, the groups were able to evade even
disclosing the source of their funding.

• To maintain the openness and integrity of our elections, Congress in the past has (1) re-
quired disclosure of the sources of the money paying for the electioneering speech; (2)
barred corporations, unions, and foreign individuals from electioneering; and (3) set contri-
bution limits.  The Supreme Court has upheld all of these.  In the 2000 election, parties and
special interest groups expanded the soft money loophole to the point where it swallowed
each of these safeguards for democracy.


• For months, the 2000 primary agenda was dominated by Senator John McCain, who made
campaign finance reform his signature issue.  His popularity continues, largely because of
his commitment to this issue.


• Twenty-five years ago, the Supreme Court counseled the House and Senate as follows:
“Congress could legitimately conclude that the avoidance of the appearance of improper
influence ‘is also critical…if confidence in the system of representative government is not to
be eroded to a disastrous extent.’”  Buckley v. Valeo 424 U.S. 1, 27 (1976), quoting CSC v.
Letter Carriers, 413 U.S. 548, 565 (1973).  That advice never has been more relevant.