Need for Campaign Finance Reform More Urgent Than Ever, According to New Study by the Brennan Center for Justice

February 4, 2002

For Immediate Release

February 4, 2002

Contact Information:

Amanda Cooper, 212 998-6282

Need for Campaign Finance Reform More Urgent Than Ever, According to New Study by the Brennan Center for Justice

Center Releases Buying Time 2000: Television Advertising in the 2000 Federal Elections

As Congress prepares to return to the debate over campaign finance reform, new research from the Brennan Center shows again that the current system is urgently in need of repair. Brennan Center research has been utilized heavily in earlier debates, and the revelations in Buying Time 2000 promise to figure prominently in the upcoming House deliberations over the Shays-Meehan bill.

Buying Time 2000 is the second in the Brennan Center’s series of reports on campaign advertising on television. Buying Time 2000 advances beyond an earlier study of the 1998 congressional elections by making use of a new database of soft money expenditures by the national and state party committees. The study reports on data compiled regarding 3,327 unique political ads that aired a total of 940,755 times in approximately 300 different races. Key findings include:

  • Spending by groups on sham issue ads in congressional races increased from $10 million to $32 million from 1998 to 2000.

  • The 2000 presidential election was the first in history in which the major parties spent more on television ads than the candidates themselves.
  • All of the ads paid for by major political parties in 2000 were aimed at electing or defeating specific candidates.

“Our study shows that the loopholes have swallowed the law,” says Brennan Center President Josh Rosenkranz. “The explosion of campaign advertising paid for by party soft money and independent groups proves that the limits that supposedly exist to curb the influence of corporations and rich individuals on our elections are gone. And the abuses just keep getting worse.”

The study shows that the huge soft money contributions given to parties by corporations, unions, and rich individuals are used primarily to support the election of individual candidates. “We have laws on the books that prohibit corporations and unions from contributing directly to candidates,” explains Mr. Rosenkranz. “By using soft money to fund sham issue ads, the parties are being used as gigantic money-laundering operations.”

Beyond showing the dire need for comprehensive campaign finance reform, Buying Time 2000 also shows that the two major criticisms of the current reform proposal, one from the left and the other from the right, hold no water.

By analyzing soft money spending, report authors Craig Holman, Ph.D. and Luke McLoughlin are able to answer campaign finance reform critic’s contention that party soft money is needed for get-out-the-vote and voter mobilization activities. In fact, only 8.5 cents of every dollar goes to these pursuits, while almost 40 cents of every dollar goes to media buys to support or defeat candidates.

“I myself was surprised by that 8.5% figure,” says Dr. Holman. “As a political scientist, I had always supported the theory that the main purposes of parties were voter mobilization activities such as registration drives, canvassing and other grassroots activities. Now our study shows that only a small fraction of party resources are allocated to this kind of activity, and the largest portion of their money goes to advertising.”

Conservative critics of reform claim that a curb on issue advertising, specifically the Snowe-Jeffords amendment to the McCain-Feingold bill, would stifle true issue advocacy. However the study found that if the Snowe-Jeffords test were applied to group advertising done in the 2000 election, only .6% of ads captured by the test would have been genuine issue ads. Use of the Snowe-Jeffords standard assures that genuine issue advocacy would escape regulation almost entirely, and that sham issue ads would require disclosure and contribution limits like all other electioneering.

Professor Kenneth Goldstein of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, created the main database analyzed in Buying Time 2000 and has worked in partnership with the Brennan Center since the inception of this project.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law develops and implements a nonpartisan agenda of scholarship, public education, and legal action that promotes equality and human dignity, while safeguarding fundamental freedoms.

To interview the report’s authors or to request a copy of the full report or executive summary, please contact Amanda Cooper at 212.998.6736.