State and Local Party Committees: An Endangered Species?

By Reiff, Neil | Campaigns & Elections, July/August 2012 | Go to article overview

State and Local Party Committees: An Endangered Species?


Reiff, Neil, Campaigns & Elections


The new campaign finance regime is taking a toll on state parties

IN THE STATES

Way back in May of 2004, 1 co-authored an article in this magazine that warned state and local parties about the new minefield of campaign finance created by the then-recently enacted Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA). Today, these effects still linger for state and local parties, and under the new campaign finance regime it's only getting worse.

Let's start with some history. In our piece from 2004, we outlined some of the difficult regulatory challenges that faced state and local parties based upon the new law, including the severe restrictions on fundraising for such committees, the requirements that much of their activities be paid for with federally permissible funds- including non-federal activity- and a whole host of new, complicated regulations that were designed to make sure state and local party committees could not become the next great loophole in campaign finance.

While we didn't predict the practical effects of BCRA on party committees, we closed the piece by noting that "complying will become increasingly difficult for state and local parties, the very organizations least equipped to deal with it."

In his 2008 book about political parties, Professor Ray La Raja prophetically captured the quandary of the state party committees.

"Political parties adapt and survive," he wrote, "but the Byzantine regulatory structure weakens parties relative to other groups by imposing costly regulatory burdens uniquely on parties, while providing incentives for wealthy nonparty groups to enter the fray of campaigns."

While the laws regulating outside groups have been evaporating, the rules for state parties are moving in a different direction. Recent attempts by the Republican National Committee to revisit BCRA in court have failed and the Federal Election Commission (FEC) was recently forced by a federal court to further tighten the rules that require state parties to spend federal funds on activities in connection with state and local elections.

The Weakening of State and Local Parties

As feared, the regulatory structure created by BCRA has severely weakened party committees in several ways. First, it has restricted the ability of national committees, as well as candidates and officeholders, to contribute and solicit state-regulated funds to party committees. Those committees have lost an incredibly important source of revenue that was reinvested by the parties into basic infrastructure and professional staff.

In the late 1990s, prior to the passage of BCRA, party committees invested significant sums in the improvement and professionalization of state and local party committees so that they could be effective grassroots organizations year-round, and not merely serve as bank accounts for the national committees and for federal candidates before a general election. BCRA has gone a long way to undermine these efforts, and party committees have had to abandon several programs and cut staff levels to keep their doors open. As the average Super PAC and presidential candidate command tens of millions of dollars of revenue in a given month, the average Democratic state party committee raised less than $500,000 (excluding internal party transfers) for the entire 2011 calendar year.

Secondly, the rules devised by BCRA for state party committees, and the FEC's regulations promulgated to enforce the law, permeate every aspect of a state party's operation, including campaign activities for state and local candidates. The situation has been further exacerbated by the fact that reform groups have sued the FEC no less than three times to force the commission to write even stricter rules in this area.

Recent rules by the FEC, which took effect for the 2012 election cycle, have essentially federalized all communications by a party committee, regardless of what candidates are featured in the advertisement. …

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State and Local Party Committees: An Endangered Species?
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