The issue of campaign finance reform has dominated legislative attention in recent weeks, as the hotly-debated Shays-Meehan bill passed the House of Representatives Feb. 14 with a vote of 240-189. The bill, sponsored by Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin T. Meehan, D-Mass., will soon be debated on the Senate floor.
"It is an attempt by the most ardent supporters of reform to reduce the influence of big money interests in the political process and congressmen who want to pay lip service to these reformers by giving them reform that doesn't do much," said James Twombly, UB visiting assistant professor in political science.
Despite periodic calls to revamp what campaign finance reformers say is a system dominated by big money and special interests, the nation's campaign finance framework, established in post-Watergate years, has remained largely untouched since the 1970s. Shays-Meehan represents the first comprehensive overhaul of the system since the decades-old Federal Election Campaign Acts.
The crux of the bill would eliminate so-called "soft money," the millions of dollars in unregulated donations to political parties that often are used to circumvent federal campaign finance laws. UB political science professor James Campbell said soft money contributions are "supposed to be used for party-building activities, but often are used to run shadow campaigns."
Campbell criticized the current system of campaign finance, saying "money plays a far too large role and people can still make vast contributions to political campaigns by taking advantage of one of the many loopholes that exist in the current law."
He characterized soft money as one such loophole, but in spite of his disapproval of the current system, Campbell does not support the finance reform bill currently before Congress. "[Shays-Meehan] does nothing to rectify the most severe problems in the system," he said.
One of those problems, according to Campbell, "is the disproportionate amount of money that congressional candidates have to sponsor campaigns. Some outspend their rival candidates by an amount of 10 to one. This disparity reduces competition, and the current reform bill could make the basic problem worse."
Critics of Shays-Meehan and its Senate companion, the McCain-Feingold bill, which was passed by the Senate in April, have labeled the bill the "Incumbent Protection Act" because they believe it will negatively impact challengers, further reducing electoral competition. Incumbents wield a significant advantage in "hard money" fundraising, legal contributions from individuals and political action committees regulated under the FECA, while challengers often must rely on soft money to finance their bids for office.
"Incumbents may benefit most," Campbell said, "because the current system that generally gives them an advantage will remain intact, and they will be permitted to continue to outspend their challengers."
In one of its more controversial components, Shays-Meehan also bans "electioneering communication," also known as "issue ads," that refer to a clearly identified candidate within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary. Issue ads, often financed through soft money or independent expenditures on behalf of a candidate, play an increasingly visible role in contemporary campaigning. At least $135 to $150 million were spent on issue advocacy in 1996 to influence federal elections, according to a study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
Campbell classified issue advocacy ads and independent expenditures as another major loophole in current campaign finance law. Groups utilizing either of those methods can advertise for a candidate so long as the ads do not explicitly instruct a person to vote or not to vote for a particular candidate. Neither issue ads nor independent expenditures are considered campaign funds and are virtually unregulated.
"These funds are even less accountable than soft money, and this bill does nothing to address this loophole," said Campbell. "If soft money is taken out of the political scene, then there will probably be a major rise in these avenues of contribution."
Franco Mattei, associate professor of political science, expressed similar sentiments. "Money is like water - if there's a crack, it will find it. No matter how many laws are on the books, big players will find a way around it."
Mattei predicted one loophole in the current bill would be the "establishment of entities that are not national parties that would not be subject to the current laws on political parties."
Many opponents of the bill suggest campaign funds would be diverted to state and local parties, where regulation of contributions and donors is much more lax, undermining the intent.
Campbell characterized the bill as a largely political move, not an impetus for real reform. He said Shays-Meehan will "give the appearance that something was done," adding, "John McCain and the Democrats in Congress would probably claim credit for passing a reform bill."
Twombly said the bill may be a "symbolic first step to true reform." He said that if substantive reform blunted the role of big money interests, the efforts of ordinary citizens, including students, would have a much larger impact.
The political system of the United States needs to "move towards the notion that one person equals one vote, instead of one dollar equals one vote," Twombly said.
The Shays-Meehan bill would also raise the maximum allowable contribution of individuals to candidates for federal office from $1,000 to $2,000 per election, and waive contribution limits for candidates facing wealthy, self-financed opponents.
The bill must be passed by the Senate with exactly the same language before it is delivered to President George W. Bush for his signature. In the case of disagreement between the two houses, the bill will go to a conference committee to resolve differences in the two versions - an obstacle proponents hope to avoid.
"This bill does nothing," Campbell said. "We need reform, but this is not it."