Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002

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The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA) is U.S. Congressional legislation which regulates the financing of political campaigns. It is also known as the McCain-Feingold Bill, after its chief sponsors, Senators John McCain (Republican of Arizona) and Russ Feingold (Democrat of Wisconsin).

As noted in a Supreme Court ruling on the BCRA, it was designed to address three issues:

  • The increased role of soft money in campaign financing,
  • The proliferation of issue ads, and
  • What were regarded as disturbing campaign practices during the federal elections of 1996, including (to some degree) the presidential race.

Contents

Provisions

A complex piece of legislation with a variety of provisions, by far the most important and controversial components of BCRA are:

  • A wholesale prohibition on soft money -- unlimited donations nominally made for the non-campaign purposes, but actually used to influence federal elections.
  • A ban on supposedly non-partisan "issue ads" -- those referring to candidates for federal election without expressly advocating their election or defeat -- in the 60 days leading up to an election

History

The first version of the McCain-Feingold Act was introduced in 1997, but the Senate Republican leadership refused to allow it to come to a vote in four years, even when the companion bill Shays-Meehan passed the House of Representatives several times (by means of a discharge petition to bring the bill to the floor without the cooperation of the leadership).

Campaign finance reform became a significant issue in the 2000 presidential campaign, and Republican candidate George W. Bush said that he would support the bill if it was amended to regulate traditionally pro-Democrat soft money sources (labor and government unions) as well as traditionally pro-Republican sources (businesses). As President, Bush worked with congressional leaders toward a compromise. He signed the bill, with reservations, in 2002.

Legal disputes

Provisions of the legislation were challenged as unconstitutional by a group of plaintiffs led by Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell. In December 2003] the Supreme Court upheld most of the legislation. See McConnell v. FEC.

Subsequently, Republicans have filed complaints with the FEC concerning the raising and spending of soft money by 527 committees -- officially non-partisan organizations organized under Section 527 of the IRS code. To date, these have mostly been Democratic-leaning organizations, such as MoveOn.org, The Media Fund, and America Coming Together, financed in large part by wealthy individuals (most notably George Soros) and labor unions. In May 2004, the FEC voted to postpone a decision concerning the legality of such fundraising, likely allowing it to continue unaffected through the 2004 election cycle.

Impact

With the 2004 elections being the first campaign season operating under the new rules, the impact of BCRA is just being felt. It has, however, been a very significant one, as much of the traditional functions of the parties, financed by soft money, are moving to the 527 groups mentioned above.

One immediately recognizable impact is that, as a result of the so-called "stand by your ad" provision, all campaign advertisements now include the candidate appearing on screen to say something similar to "I'm John Doe and I approved this message."

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