Court Upholds Campaign-Finance Law; Ruling Cuts off Soft-Money Supply to Political Parties

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 11, 2003 | Go to article overview

Court Upholds Campaign-Finance Law; Ruling Cuts off Soft-Money Supply to Political Parties


Byline: Stephen Dinan, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday upheld the new campaign-finance law, which banned "soft money" donations to national political parties and prohibited interest groups from running issue ads immediately before a federal election.

The 5-4 ruling on those two key issues validates the law that President Bush signed in March 2002, which has led to major changes in the way parties and interest groups participate in elections. The law will now govern the 2004 presidential and congressional elections.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Justice John Paul Stevens, in their majority opinion, said allowing wealthy corporations, unions and individual donors to make unlimited donations to political parties, known as "soft money," is "likely to buy donors preferential access to federal officeholders." They were joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and David H. Souter.

Dissenting were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas, who said by allowing Congress to severely restrict ads naming a candidate in the days before a primary or election, the ruling violates the most basic principle of the First Amendment.

"Who could have imagined that the same court which, within the past four years, has sternly disapproved of restrictions upon such inconsequential forms of expression as virtual child pornography, tobacco advertising, dissemination of illegally intercepted communications, and sexually explicit cable programming would smile with favor upon a law that cuts to the heart of what the First Amendment is meant to protect: the right to criticize the government," Justice Scalia wrote in his dissent.

But the majority wrote that there is no real difference between issue ads - which critics call "sham ads" because, while not specifically endorsing or opposing a candidate, do everything short of that - and "electioneering" ads, which do specifically call for someone's election or defeat.

The law took effect after the November 2002 elections. It banned parties from raising soft money, and also prohibits parties and interest groups from running "issue ads" naming a federal candidate for 30 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election.

The law also restricts the way states can raise and spend soft money in federal elections, but does not change state laws regarding state elections.

Soft money had become an important source of funding for political parties. In 1984, the parties collected $21.6 million, accounting for 5 percent of party fund raising. By 2000, that had grown to $498 million, accounting for 42 percent.

The Democrat and Republican parties raised about equal amounts of soft money recently, while Republicans raise much more "hard money" - the regulated donations on which parties have traditionally relied. Both parties are on pace for record years for hard dollar fund-raising, but will fall short of their combined hard and soft money fund-raising in recent years.

Under the new restrictions, parties have slashed their Washington staffs and changed the way they raise and spend money. Meanwhile, citizen interest groups have had to re-evaluate how they will lobby Congress and the president under rules that prevent them from running TV ads aimed at lawmakers immediately before an election.

In a joint statement, the four lead congressional sponsors of the law called the ruling a "landmark victory. …

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