Commentary: Campaign Reform's Dangerous Aftershocks

By Lorraine Woellert and Lee Walczak

On Mar. 27, President Bush signed into law a campaign-finance reform bill forced upon him by a coalition led by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). Chances are good that a conservative Supreme Court will strike down the measure's limits on strident, often-deceptive issue ads, curbs that could infringe free speech. But the heart of the statute--a ban on the national parties' ability to raise unregulated "soft dollars" from wealthy donors--likely will survive. Great news for the republic? Maybe not.

More than 200 years ago, the Founding Fathers warned of an inherent flaw of democracy: The tendency for We the People to splinter into factions. James Madison called such schisms "mortal diseases" that could undo the republic. Madison and the Founders envisioned a strong party system to keep the new nation from being torn asunder by regional, factional, and religious strife. Over the years, the now-dominant Democrats and Republicans have proven remarkably adept at fulfilling that mission--and at absorbing splinter parties that threatened their hegemony.

Today, the national parties continue to provide vital stability. They rally voters of like ideologies toward the center and keep the fringe elements in check with "big tent" appeals that moderate the political debate. "Democracy can't be a free-for-all," says Robert D. McClure, a Syracuse University political scientist. "The weaker the parties, the weaker the government."

Unfortunately, an unintended consequence of the campaign-finance reform law may be to undermine the parties' stabilizing role. That's not to say that the surge in soft money isn't troubling, or in need of fixing. In the last election, Democrats and Republicans racked up $495 million in soft dollars from fat cats, corporations, unions, and groups such as the National Rifle Assn. The money provided access and gave the appearance that lawmakers were bought by special interests.

But the new law might have disturbing results. Party discipline has been waning since the turn of the 19th century, with the decline of big-city machines and the reform movement's rise. Changes instituted by clean-government crusaders in the 1970s inadvertently helped spur the rise of political action committees. But when Watergate-era reforms set $1,000 caps on what individuals could give to a candidate in each election, huge slugs of political money sloshed to the national parties as unlimited soft dollars.

As a result, party headquarters gained new leverage over state committees. National strategists became dispensers of cash that could fund get-out-the-vote drives and buy ads. "It helped revive a role for parties not seen for decades," says Bruce E. Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley.

Now, it will fall to states to finance voter drives and phone banks. But the reform lets donors give state parties a max of only $10,000 for such efforts. "That's chicken feed," says Benjamin Ginsburg, a counsel to the Bush campaign. "States won't be able to pay for this stuff with that kind of money." The upshot: "The void will be filled by the Sierra Club, the National Right to Life Committee, labor unions, and the like, all of which boosts fragmentation."

Indeed, voters can expect a deluge of the very attack and issue ads that reformers hope to curb. Single-issue groups could wrest control of the political debate. "Do you as a candidate want to be more beholden to the NRA than the GOP?" asks Jan Baran, a Republican on the bipartisan legal team fighting the new law.

Yes, there's something to be said for a law that forces politicians to raise the bulk of their money from small givers. But McCain & Co. can't guarantee that reform won't divide the body politic. "Reformers believe that something is always better than nothing," Cain says. "But it's sometimes worse." Given the unintended consequences of earlier reforms, that conclusion can't easily be dismissed.

Woellert and Walczak cover politics in Washington.

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