How McCain-Feingold Failed to Change American Politics

Senate passes McCain-Feingold Bill

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The McCain-Feingold Act is one of the several federal laws that regulate the financing of political campaigns. It is named after its chief sponsors, Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic U.S. Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin.

The law, which took effect in November 2002, was notable in that members of both political parties worked together to create what at the time was a groundbreaking effort to reform American politics. Since its passage, though, a number of court cases have chipped away at the heart of what McCain and Feingold were attempted to do: limit the influence of money on elections.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in favor of the nonprofit corporation and conservative advocacy group Citizens United ruled that the federal government cannot limit corporations, unions, associations, or individuals from spending money to influence the outcome of elections. The widely criticized ruling, along with another in the earlier SpeechNow.org case, is cited as leading to the creation of super PACs. The ominous-sounding dark money has started flowing into campaigns since McCain-Feingold, too.

What McCain-Feingold Meant to Do but Didn't

The primary objective of McCain-Feingold was to restore public trust in the political system by banning donations to political parties from wealthy individuals and corporations. But the legislation allowed people and corporations to give their money elsewhere, to independent and third-party groups.

Some critics claim McCain-Feingold made matters worse by shifting campaign cash from the political parties to outside, third-party groups, which are more extreme and narrowly focused. Writing in The Washington Post in 2014, Robert K. Kelner, chairman of the election law practice at Covington & Burling LLP, and Raymond La Raja, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst:

"McCain-Feingold tilted influence in our political system toward the ideological extremes. For centuries, political parties played a moderating role: Because they comprise a broad coalition of interests, parties had to mediate among competing constituencies, looking for ­middle-ground positions that would draw maximum support. Traditionally, they used their preponderance of resources to impose discipline on extremists who threatened party comity.
But McCain-Feingold pushed soft money away from parties and toward interest groups, many of which prefer to focus on highly contentious issues (abortion, gun control, environmentalism). These are not necessarily the issues of greatest concern to most Americans, especially during difficult economic times. With the parties in retreat, is it any surprise that our national political debate has taken on a more extreme tone or that fewer moderates are elected?"

Anyone who's witnessed the billions of dollars spent on presidential campaigns in modern political history knows money's corrupting influence is alive and well. It's also time to end the public financing of presidential campaigns in light of the court decisions.

Key Points

The law, also known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, focused on these key areas:

  • Soft money in campaign financing
  • Issue ads
  • Controversial campaign practices during the 1996 federal elections
  • Increasing political contribution limits for private individuals

The law was in development for a long time, first being introduced in 1995. It is the first major change in campaign finance law since the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971.

The House passed HR 2356 on 14 February 2002 by a vote of 240-189. The Senate concurred on 20 March 2002, by a vote of 60-40.