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Research Report

The End of Limits on Money in Politics

  • Craig B. Holman, Ph.D.
Published: December 31, 2001

“Soft money”—money in federal elections that would otherwise be illegal, such as direct corporate or union contributions or contributions in excess of legal limits—has now become the primary source of funding for party ads that promote the election or defeat of federal candidates. Though expressly prohibited by campaign finance laws, federal regulators have recently begun to allow the influx of some soft money into party coffers with a wink and a nod. Money given directly from corporate or union treasuries or from wealthy individuals to party committees has been deemed not in violation of federal laws by the FEC so long as the funds are not used for “express advocacy”—directly promoting the election or defeat of federal candidates. Instead, soft money is to be used for party-building activities, such as voter registration drives and strengthening the image and infrastructure of party organizations.

Findings from a new study conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and Professor Ken Goldstein at the University of Wisconsin show that in the 2000 elections quite the opposite has occurred: television advertising sponsored by the parties to support or oppose candidates has been primarily financed through soft unregulated money. In the one area of campaign activity most considered off-limits to soft money— television electioneering ads for and against candidates—direct corporate and union monies and contributions far in excess of federal limits now are the principal source of funds behind these ads sponsored by the political parties. Party soft money has rendered federal campaign finance laws meaningless in the real world of politicking.