June 29, 1998
Congress Fiddles While Parties Burn Campaign Finance Laws
By Glenn J. Moramarco
While Democrats and Republicans on Capital Hill debate the merits of campaign finance reform, the Republican National Committee and the Ohio Democratic Party are busy at work in federal court seeking to undermine the last remaining vestiges of federal campaign finance regulation.
The RNC and the Ohio Democrats are litigating a lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission in federal court in Washington, D.C., arguing that political parties have a constitutional right to run issue ads during federal election campaigns that are not subject to any of the restrictions contained in the Federal Election Campaign Act. The parties assert that they should be able to raise money for issue ads in unlimited amounts, from any source (including foreign governments, corporations, and labor unions) and without publicly reporting or disclosing these contributions. Indeed, the Republicans even argue that they can coordinate their ads with the candidates themselves and still be exempt from all federal regulation.
Everyone agrees that federal law ought to intelligently differentiate between issue ads, which seek to educate the public about important issues, and electioneering ads, which seek to elect or defeat particular candidates. But according to the RNC and the Ohio Democrats, unless an ad uses explicit words of advocacy, such as vote for or vote against a particular candidate, it is an issue ad and not electioneering. Thus, in the last election, the RNC ran the following advertisement, which it claims is not electioneering:
Bill Clinton, he’s really something. He’s now trying to avoid a sexual harassment lawsuit claiming he is on active military duty. Active duty? Newspapers report that Mr. Clinton claims as commander in chief he is covered under the Soldiers and Sailors Relief Act of 1940, which grants automatic delays in lawsuits against military personnel until their active duty is over. Active duty? Bill Clinton, he’s really something.
Is there any person who thinks that the purpose of this advertisement was to educate the public about an important public policy issue? The RNC ran ads like this all across the country, attacking President Clinton on everything from welfare reform to the allegations surrounding Paula Jones. The Democrats ran equally egregious ads praising the President’s accomplishments and attacking Senator Dole’s record and positions. Although neither party used the magic words of vote for or vote against in their ads, to the viewing public these commercials were indistinguishable from the ads emanating from the candidates own campaign headquarters.
American taxpayers gave President Clinton and Senator Dole each in excess of $60 million in public financing for their presidential campaigns in exchange for their promise to abide by voluntary spending limits that prohibited them from raising any additional funds. Both candidates evaded the clear intent of the law by raising additional funds, funneling them through their respective political parties, and using the funds to run issue ads that mirrored their own campaign ads. Indeed, the same people who raised funds for the campaigns and the same media advisors who designed the candidates’ campaigns, performed the same functions for the national parties. The Federal Election Commission required the parties, however, to use funds raised under the restrictions imposed by the Federal Election Campaign Act, to pay for a substantial.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Glenn J. Moramarco is a senior attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.