Updated 11-6-97


The Current System

Reform Proposals

Other Approaches

Key Terms


AllPolitics' Special Fund-Raising Section

Related Stories
TIME: Washington's Debating Campaign Finance (9/29/97)

TIME: The Wake-Up Call (2/3/97)

What's Legal And Not In Non-U.S. Citizen Donations
By Brooks Jackson/CNN

Related Sites
FECInfo Home Page

Brookings Working Group on Campaign Finance Reform

Federal Election Commission

Common Cause president Ann McBride asserts spending limits are key, while Cato Institute president Edward Crane urges abolishing contribution limits. (25/11/96)

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Should soft money be banned?
The Tally


in focus

Campaign Reform

Reform Proposals

democrat Many Democrats favor:

republican Many Republicans favor:

  • Prohibiting labor unions from spending compulsory union dues on political activities.
  • Raising limits on individual donations.
  • Restricting donations from PACs.


mccain feingold The most prominent legislative vehicle for campaign reform is the McCain-Feingold bill, sponsored by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold and backed by campaign watchdog group Common Cause. President Clinton says he would sign that bill with an amendment to ban donations from non-U.S. citizens.

"Spending limits will do more to level the playing field than any other contemplated reform. Analysis of past races shows that incumbents raised and spent considerably more money than challengers, and that the candidate who spent the most money usually won the election."

-- Sens. McCain and Feingold, The Washington Post, Feb. 20, 1995

Here are the main provisions of their latest bill:

  • Soft Money A ban on soft money contributions to the national parties from individuals, corporations, and labor unions.
  • PACs (political action committees). PAC contribution caps would be lowered from $5,000 per candidate per election to $2,500.
  • Independent expenditures Spending by groups determined to be in direct support ("express advocacy") of a federal candidate would come under federal regulation and would require full disclosure.
  • Lowered campaign spending Candidates that raise 60 percent of their funds from in-state sources, and who agree to limit their own spending ($25,000 per election in small states, $50,000 per election in large states) would be granted 30 minutes of free TV time; reduced costs for advertising; and breaks on direct mail costs.
  • "Leveled Playing Field". In races where one of the candidates does not abide by the spending limits, the other candidate would be permitted to accept individual contribution up to $2,000, PAC donations up to $5,000, and addition party funds.
  • No Overseas Contributions No contributions would be allowed from citizens ineligible to vote in U.S. elections.

A previous version of McCain-Feingold was filibustered by Senate Republicans during the 104th Congress, and while there is currently some bipartisan support for the measure, most Republicans oppose it, citing several objections.

First, they say it would unconstitutionally restrict free speech. McCain-Feingold supporters, in turn, have produced a letter signed by 126 constitutional scholars attesting to the constitutionality of banning soft money.

Republicans also say McCain-Feingold would tilt the playing field toward the Democrats, who they say benefited from labor unions' $35 million ad campaign in 1996 congressional races. The GOP would like to see a ban on labor spending compulsory union dues on political activities, a non-starter proposal for Democrats.

Republicans also say that McCain-Feingold, in placing greater limits on campaign spending, would increase the influence of the media. A major cost of campaigns, they point out, is the high cost of advertising. Many Republicans, who believe that the media is biased in favor of Democrats, fear that money limits would restrict their ability to get their message out.

The Farr Proposal

farrGiven near unanimous Republican opposition to McCain-Feingold, a group of House Democrats last spring threw support behind a proposal authored by Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.). Yet, given Farr's support for banning soft money contributions, there is little reason to believe his proposal will fair any better.

What the proposal would do:

  • Caps PAC funds at $8,000 during each two-year election cycle. (The current limit is $20,000 for candidates who face both primary and general elections; McCain-Feingold either bans or limits PAC contributions to $1,000.)
  • Imposes voluntary spending limits, with incentives such as free or reduced-price TV time for candidates who agree to cap their spending.
  • Bans "soft money" contributions given for generic advertising, political party-building and get-out-the-vote drives.

What the proposal would not do:

Unlike McCain-Feingold, the Farr bill doesn't impose stricter requirements on candidates to raise more of their funds from their home state.

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