The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, a 2002 brainchild of Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold and widely known by their last names, has provoked considerable howling from both sides of the political aisle during this election cycle-most ire stretching beyond annoyance at the bill's required awkward refrain, "I'm John Doe, and I approve this message."
The legislation's primary lightning rod: a ban on soft-money-funded broadcast advocacy ads that mention specific candidates by name within 60 days of the election. Democrats decry that provision for protecting congressional incumbents from criticism. Republicans malign its unprecedented limits on political free speech.
But for all the hissing and calls for repeal, the McCain-Feingold restrictions may have a relatively minor impact on this year's elections. A number of major special-interest groups have shifted away from heavy television and radio advertising for reasons independent of any campaign-finance laws.
David Willett, national press secretary for the Sierra Club, told WORLD the environmentalist organization is directing the bulk of its electioneering efforts to grassroots campaigns: "Direct contact is much more effective. Broadcast advertising seems to not break through the clutter as it once did. There's just so much of it now that a lot of voters just tune out."
Willett added that most groups with "the capacity and resources to actually get on the ground and talk to people person-to-person are moving in that direction, because it is much more effective at getting people to vote."
AFL-CIO spokesman Steve Smith confirmed that assessment, telling WORLD that McCain-Feingold has not affected the nation's largest membership organization much at all: "We don't do much advertising on TV. The focus of our program is member-to-member mobilization."
With close to 13 million members, the AFL-CIO has little trouble forging an impact through strictly intra-organizational efforts. Similarly, the Sierra Club networks its message through a roster of about 800,000 members. Smaller groups might benefit from the broader exposure of broadcast ads but often do not possess the financial means to purchase them.
Adding to McCain-Feingold's relative impotence is a loophole that allows organizations to use candidates' names in television and radio spots provided the ads run on funding from political action committees. Many groups able to afford significant broadcast campaigns also are capable of establishing such committees and generating enough donations to avoid restrictions.
In a rare departure from its more personal tactics, the Sierra Club did just that during the Republican primary for California's 11th Congressional District-vigorously seeking the defeat of longtime incumbent Richard Pombo with broadcast ads detailing his environmental record.
Nevertheless, several organizations, including the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, deemed the McCain-Feingold restrictions sufficiently inconvenient as to warrant petitioning the Federal Election Commission for an exemption. The six-member commission's vote in late August split evenly along party lines, resulting in a denial of that request.
The vote indicated that repealing or restructuring McCain-Feingold could prove more difficult than its vocal bipartisan opposition suggests. Democrats and Republicans have long disagreed over the proper extent of governmental control over campaign financing-GOP loyalists typically calling for fewer regulations.
But whatever the parties' philosophical differences, McCain-Feingold is difficult to defend: The legislation fails to achieve its desired ends in several provisions beyond the limits on broadcast advertising.
Its ban on soft-money contributions to political candidates and parties instigated the rise of unregulated 527 advocacy groups. And the bill's limit on fundraising for any candidate using public money pushed 2004 presidential race opponents George W. Bush and John Kerry exclusively into the private sector, where they raised $297 million and $235 million, respectively, before the party conventions-thanks to a McCain-Feingold clause doubling the permissible amount of campaign contributions.
Such ineffectiveness has prompted many politicians and pundits to call for a replacement bill-something that will accomplish its stated goal of finance reform. But Republicans in favor of minimal campaign-finance interference might do well to keep quiet and let McCain-Feingold continue to fail.