National Public Radio
March 28, 2000
Would a ban on soft money hurt special interest politics?
by Russell Roberts
The rush toward campaign finance reform continues to pick up momentum. People want to purge money from politics. That's a little like asking to take the grinder out of the sausage factory. The whole thing is about money.
The Federal government will spend around 1.7 trillion dollars this year. How the money gets spent is in the hands of roughly 536 people-our elected Senators, Representatives and President.
The reformers want the people, not special interests, to influence how that money gets spent. That's the appeal of banning "soft money," the money spent by the political parties and donated by the special interests.
One snag with this plan is that it may conflict with the First Amendment. But even ignoring the Constitution, will a ban on soft money increase the power of the people?
It will enhance the power of incumbents. Incumbents don't need money to generate name recognition and publicity. They already have it. If soft money isn't available to be spent on behalf of new candidates, incumbents' seats become even safer. Without the threat of a well-financed challenger, incumbents won't have to be as responsive to the electorate.
But the real problem is those pesky special interests. If soft money is banned, do you think they'll stop trying to influence policy? With almost 2 trillion dollars to be spent and countless regulations to be written, do you think those lobbyists and industry groups and unions are going to shrug, fold their tents and disappear?
If the special interests can't donate soft money, they'll still find ways to influence government. Under Gore's proposal, lobbying groups will still be able to make so-called independent expenditures on issues they care about.
They'll also find ways to influence policy that are harder to detect. They'll befriend legislative aides and staffers with gifts and favors. They'll try to position friends and allies as delegates and party officials. When $1.7 trillion dollars is up for grabs, special interests will work awfully hard to have a say in how it's spent.
In a world without soft money, the influence of the special interests won't be eliminated, just further removed from scrutiny and accountability. Instead of trying to sweep special interests under the rug, let's keep their impact out in the open. Let money flow freely and openly. Eliminate the limits on hard money, the direct contributions to candidates, and post all contributions on the Internet.
Letting money flow freely creates more challengers to incumbents. That means more choice for the voters and more competition within the political parties. Letting it flow openly gives the voters a chance to judge whether a politician is in the pocket of special interests. More choice and more information enhances the power of the ballot box. That's the best way to give power to the people.