Taming the Wild West of Campaign Spending
Posted on December 13, 2014
(This originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s Think Tank)
Over the objections of then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert (my former boss) and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, President George W. Bush signed into law the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.
And with that singular act, President Bush dealt a crippling blow to the power of political parties.
Better known to history as McCain-Feingold, the BCRA banned so-called soft money donations to the Republican and Democratic parties. The law was constitutionally suspect from the get-go and a subsequent Supreme Court ruling found that anybody could spend any amount of money advocating whatever they wanted to advocate, but that it was still constitutional to limit the amount of money channeled to formal political parties.
As a result, we now have the Wild West of campaign spending. Billionaires on both the left and the right dominate the political landscape, building entire political machines outside the regulatory reach of the Federal Election Commission.
It was against that backdrop that House Republicans and Senate Democrats agreed to a provision in the so-called Cromnibus to even the playing field a bit for the established political parties. They basically allowed the parties to get more money from well-heeled donors on both sides of the political spectrum.
Political parties might not be popular at the moment, but they serve a useful role in our democracy. Where billionaires build machines to promote their own narrow interests, political parties have to harmonize those interests into a larger coalition.
Neither the far left nor the far right is particularly comfortable with this move to rebuild the parties. They like the Wild West of campaign spending, because for them, it is far better to promote their ideological manifestos, undiluted by other interests.
But for those of us who want to see the political process function again and who believe in the importance of our party system to make our government work again, this is a smart and long-overdue reform.