Since the anti-incumbent groundswell produced a near-record turnover in last year's elections, lawmakers have become more sensitive to charges that moneyed interests have excessive influence on Capitol Hill. But despite progress toward fuller lobbying disclosure and tighter controls on gifts, Congress has yet to enact tougher campaign finance legislation.
Campaign finance rules have not changed much since the early 1970s when Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act. The landmark act requires candidates to disclose campaign contributions and expenditures and limits individual contributions to $1,000; it also put in place a public financing system for presidential elections.
In many ways the law worked as intended. But in 1976 the Supreme Court struck down provisions that limited a candidate's personal expenditures and capped campaign spending. After that, creative fund-raising techniques ensured that money would continue to play a major role in electoral politics. Today, millions flow to candidates through political action committees, through the bundling of small contributions into large ones and through so-called "soft money," given to a national political party and passed on to its candidates.
To help restore faith in the system, Sens. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) have introduced legislation that picks up the ball on campaign finance reform. SB 1219 would reward candidates who abided by voluntary spending limits in primaries and general elections with discounted TV and radio broadcast time. A limit would be based on the size of a candidate's state.
The bipartisan bill also seeks to end the soft-money system by forcing national parties to raise funds in strict compliance with federal laws, and it forbids bundling and outlaws PACs. If a total ban on PACs was found to be unconstitutional, SB 1219 would reduce PAC contributions from $5,000 to $1,000 per election and limit the amount a PAC could give to a candidate to no more than 20% of the state spending limit.
Now the question is: Will Congress back SB 1219 or will more turnover on Capitol Hill be needed before it gets the message?