Supreme Court Upholds Ban on ‘Soft Money’

WASHINGTON, D.C. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that the government can prohibit unlimited donations to political parties, known as “soft money,” and can restrict political ads in the weeks before an election.

In the 5-4 decision, the court upheld the two key provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, otherwise known as the “McCain-Feingold law” after its chief Senate sponsors, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.)

“Many years ago we observed that to say that Congress is without power to pass appropriate legislation to safeguard an election from the improper use of money to influence the result is to deny to the nation…the power of self-protection,” wrote Justices John Paul Stevens and Sandra Day O’Connor in the court’s majority opinion. “We abide by that conviction in considering Congress’ most recent effort to confine the ill effects of aggregated wealth on our political system.”

The new campaign finance reform rules are already in effect in the early stages of the 2004 election. The Supreme Court’s decision means those rules will stay largely in place as the race gathers steam next year.

Under McCain-Feingold, issue ads that refer to a candidate and run within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary are banned. Before McCain-Feingold, corporations, wealthy individuals and unions could buy as many of these ads as they wanted and could pay for them out of their general funds. Now, they can only buy such ads with funds raised through a separate political action committee, which makes that money subject to federal contribution limits and disclosure rules.

Opponents of campaign finance reform, led chiefly by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), argued that the new rules violate free speech, because they ban money that pays for political debate.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, in his dissent, argued that disclosing who purchases airtime hurts that person’s freedom of speech. “Such disclosure risks allowing candidates and political groups the opportunity to ferret out a purchaser’s political strategy [and] unduly burdens the First Amendment freedoms of purchasers,” Rehnquist wrote.

In September, the Supreme Court justices returned early from a summer vacation to hear oral arguments on the issue. Today’s decision in McConnell v. FEC is the court’s most sweeping analysis of campaign finance law since 1976.

But the Supreme Court justices do not expect it will be the last word. “We are under no illusion that BCRA will be the last congressional statement on the matter,” Stevens and O’Connor wrote. “Money, like water, will always find an outlet. What problems will arise, and how Congress will respond, are concerns for another day.”