A funny thing happened on the way to making soft money the symbol for all that is wrong with the nation's campaign finance system. Hard money--the stuff that is harder to amass because it is regulated by the Federal Election Campaign Act and limited in a variety of ways--has begun to look like virtuous money to some people.
Consider the following examples. In September, Senate candidate Rick Lazio of New York defended his heavy fundraising from out-of-state donors like the Wyly brothers from Texas (who paid for more than $2 million worth of issue ads against Arizona Senator John McCain at a crucial moment in the Republican presidential primary race), saying, "All I can tell you ... is that this is all clean, hard donors. These are all disclosed dollars. These are dollars that are protected under campaign finance reform."
Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Jennifer Backus took a similar tack in defending a giant fundraiser headlined by Barbra Streisand that took place in Los Angeles. This was only hours after Vice President Al Gore's acceptance speech at the Democratic national convention, in which he promised to make the McCain-Feingold reform bill his number-one priority. As The New York Times reported: "Backus said the event was consistent with the party's support for campaign finance reform because it collected only hard money. The $5.2 million raised tonight was the largest hard-money event in Democratic Party history, she said."
In a narrow, technical sense, neither Lazio nor Backus was wrong in saying that collecting hard dollars is consistent with the law; nor are they wrong in arguing that huge hard-money fundraising would be acceptable under the McCain-Feingold version of reform. Opportunistic politicians and party operatives can hardly be faulted for trying to take advantage of any edge they can find in the campaign finance game.
But that doesn't mean the rest of us should be fooled. Hard money and soft money alike are political contributions given to gain access to politicians. If a Goldman Sachs or Philip Morris or Microsoft executive gives a hard-money contribution to a member of Congress who chairs a committee that is considering legislation affecting the company's bottom line, it is not "better" or "cleaner" than making a soft-money contribution--it is simply treated differently by the law. Money given for influence is money given for influence, no matter what it is called. Seventy-five percent of the automotive industry's $12.1 million in contributions this reporting cycle have been in the form of hard money, as have 59 percent of the securities-and-investment industry's $57.8 million and 51 percent of the oil-and-gas industry's $22.8 million.
And despite the tremendous growth spurt in soft-money contributions to national political parties for the 2000 elections--$255.8 million by June 30, 2000, compared to $149.7 million at the same point in the 1996 election cycle--soft money still accounts for just 16 percent of party and candidate fundraising overall.
Controlling the explosion of soft money is a crucial part of any campaign finance reform effort. The cynical use of these unlimited contributions to support candidates despite campaign finance laws forbidding the practice is a blot on the political system (money given to parties is supposed to go for party building, not for specific campaigns). There is no argument that the importance of soft money in political campaigns has increased astronomically in recent years. But even if every single dollar of soft money were banned from the system, there would still be hundreds of millions of dollars contributed by special interests. Comprehensive campaign finance reform requires a clean break from the present system, so that candidates can run for office without being dependent on special-interest contributors no matter how "hard" or "soft" their donations.