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Court upholds 'soft money' ban

Divided justices Wednesday affirmed key parts of campaign-finance law, the most important such decision in nearly 30 years.

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Campaign finance reform has won a major victory at the US Supreme Court. In a ruling with important implications for the character of American politics, the high court Wednesday upheld the most significant portions of the so-called McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law.

Although the decision arrives less than a year before the 2004 presidential election, it is not expected to cause major disruptions in the campaigns of either President Bush or his Democratic challengers.

That is because the reform law has been in full effect since November 2002, and the candidates and their political parties have already altered their fundraising strategies. While analysts are divided on the impact of the 300-page ruling, all agree it is the most important campaign finance decision since the landmark 1976 opinion Buckley v. Valeo.

"The idea that the parties have been starved for money, that the Democrats are being [harmed] in this process, is nonsense," says Norman Ornstein, a political expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "The system has operated in perfectly reasonable fashion."

Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, disagrees. "Overall, [the campaign-finance law] is a joke," he says. "Every dollar that would have been given will be given under the new system," he says. "So what have reformers accomplished? They've weakened the parties and essentially transferred the flow of political money from one stream to another."

In an important victory for reform advocates, the justices placed a constitutional seal of approval on the centerpiece of the legislation - a ban on "soft money" in federal elections.

"The government interest underlying [the soft-money ban] - preventing the actual or apparent corruption of federal candidates and officeholders - constitutes a significantly important interest to justify contribution limits," writes Justices John Paul Stevens and Sandra Day O'Connor in a joint majority opinion. "That interest is not limited to the elimination of quid pro quo, cash-for-votes exchanges," they write, "but extends also to undue influence on an officeholder's judgment, and the appearance of such influence."

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