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Political Reform and Soft Money
Stephen Todd

There can be no doubt that American politics involves too much money.  In the 2000 election cycle, the Democratic Party raised over 520 million dollars.  Even this insane figure pales in comparison to the republican's 715 million.  Despite these staggering figures, the real issue is not the money itself, but its effect on policy decisions.  We've heard about 'soft money' for years, but its impact is rarely discussed. 

First of all, soft money allows an individual to donate more than his allotted maximum to a particular candidate by using an organization - a state party, for example - as a middleman.  They donate to the given organization, and the organization uses their donation in the campaign of the candidate that the donor supports. 

One example of this situation is the oil/energy industry.  They support the republican party's stance on the environment, and their donations show this.  They attempt to influence the election with money, thereby solidifying their interests(1).

Election Cycle Total Contributions Soft Money Donations to Donations to Percent to Percent to
  Contributions  Democrats  Republicans Democrats Republicans
2002 so far $5,380,345 $2,627,694 $1,017,599 $4,305,246 19% 80%
2000 $33,486,154 $16,024,822 $6,728,672 $26,254,713 20% 78%
1998 $21,677,051 $8,762,013 $4,864,258 $16,732,696 22% 77%
1996 $24,847,230 $9,899,387 $5,533,584 $18,933,949 22% 76%
Total $85,390,780 $37,313,916 $18,144,113 $66,226,604 26% 73%
Any type of organization can act as a middleman between large donors and political parties.  Political parties, corporations, unions, and special-interest groups all play a role in the soft money loophole.  Despite the outrageous amounts of money being spent on election campaigns, the biggest problems with large donations is that they attack the principle of all votes being equal.

Under the current system, individuals are limited to donating a certain dollar amount to parties or candidates.  However, the soft money goes into a general party fund and can be raised through such things as dinners with politicians.  In the 2002 election cycle, the largest donor to the republican party was the 2001 President's Dinner Committee, which raised a full ten times as much money as the next highest donor.  Suppose a politician has one of these $10,000 a plate dinners.  Company X pays for twenty people to attend.  This leads to certain corporations or industries, making very large donations, and thereby greatly influencing policy decisions. 

Some organizations - Microsoft, Citigroup, and SBC Communications, to name a few - donate responsibly.  Many groups, however, think otherwise.  The Service Employees International Union donated almost all of their 8.5 million dollars to the democrats, while the NRA and Philip Morris each donated over 90% of their 3 million dollars to the republicans.  Politicians know who their biggest supporters are, and make concessions to their wishes.  In effect, this can make the votes of twenty people far more important than that those votes of most other citizens. 

The problems of the system are obvious, and although this cycle seems impossible to end, several ideas can at least make the system less financially driven, and somewhat equalize the importance of votes.  Legislation that effects such change much be passed through congress.  In 1986, Bill Bradley proposed a bill to limit campaign contributions and 'pork-barrel legislation'.  Before it was passed, however, congress debated it, and changed it such that it not only made the financial situation worse, but also had unnecessary legislation attached to it.  This additional legislation ended up making the financial situation even worse( 2 ).

Simply put, there is too much money in politics.  The votes of large donors are worth more than the votes of average citizens.  And even when legislation is introduced that would reform the present state of campaign financing, it often gets modified by congress, and in effect, waters down its impact.  The first step towards campaign finance reform is to show politicians that we care about the issue, and then elect people who are willing to tackle the problem. 
1: All the statistical figures on this page are based on Federal Election Commission data released on Monday, October 01, 2001 and November 01, 2001.  All numbers are credited to the Center for Responsive Politics, as reprinted through

2: Showdown at Gucci Gulch : Lawmakers, Lobbyists, and the Unlikely Triumph of Tax Reform by Jeffrey H.  Birnbaum, Alan S.  Murray (Contributor).  Pub.  by Random House Inc.  1987.