The recent Supreme Court ruling in the Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life case dealt the first significant legal blow to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2001, also known as the McCain-Feingold law which sought to deeply curb if not completely eliminate the use of so-called “soft money” in American political campaigns. Because the BCRA raised doubts among right of center political thinkers due to a perceived infringement upon free-speech, the Supreme Court ruling was ” roundly applauded […] because it rolled back aspects of the draconian McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law. ” (“A Free-Speech Salve; End” A19) which, according to conservatives, and others, had openly infringed upon constitutional rights.
The central issue in the free-speech debate regarding McCain-Feingold is that of organizations comprised of issue-groups, specifically grass-roots political organizations and those organizations listed as “527” organization: “under the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, at least for 90 days of every election year,” (“McCain-Feingold and Free Speech;” A21) these types of organizations had been prohibited from running commercials or ads in support of issues of candidates.
McCain-Feingold brought a challenge to the use of “soft” money and explictly stated that “grass-roots organizations such as Wisconsin Right to Life may not use their treasury funds to run broadcast ads that mention the name of a federal candidate within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election” (“McCain-Feingold and Free Speech;” A21); this provision paved the way for the eventual First Amendment case which was ultimately brought before the Supreme Court and successfully used to strike down one of the key components of the BCRA legislation.
What the court decided was that, in fact, Wisconsin Right to Life had experienced an infringement upon its First Amendment rights and this decision is vitally important into speculation as to what kind of influence the McCain-Feingold legislation will have in the future regarding the use of soft money in political campaigns. While it would be to simple to suggest that the Supreme Court ruling strikes down the legislation’s most important “teeth” wholesale, there is good reason to see the decision as an outright rejection of McCain-Feingold to curb the influence of soft money and the influence of grassroots political organizations during political campaigns.
Because soft money can be defined as political contributions which do not assign directly to any specific candidate but to action committees, grass roots organizations, and other groups which speak out on behalf of specific issues and specific candidates )or opposition candidates) it is crucial that the use of soft money be federally regulated. Those who have applauded the Supreme Court’s decision in the Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life case have won a slim triumph in preserving free-speech if this preservation of free speech allows for the corruption of the electoral process and results in weaker candidates who simply have more soft money to burn than those who are running against them.
The newest interpretation of the McCain-Feingold legislation allows for the complete evasion of its most essential provisions regarding the disposition of soft money in electoral campaigns; the “small but potentially deep change creates an exception to what had been considered a near-blanket rule” (“Issue Ads Allowed in” A01); in nothing else, the recent Supreme Court decision renders McCain-Feingold unlikely to curb or even in any meaningful way restrain the use of soft money and “527” group advertisements. Perhaps the “free-speech interest is too substantial here,” (“Issue Ads Allowed in” A01) as law-professor Carl Tobias at the University of Richmond opined — but there can be no doubt that the recent Supreme Court decision weakens McCain-Feingold almost to the point of dissolving this finance reform legislation altogether.
“A Free-Speech Salve; End Compulsory Unionism.” The Washington Times 29 June 2007: A19.
“Issue Ads Allowed in Election Run-Up; Panel OKs Naming Candidates.” The Washington Times 22 Dec. 2006: A01.
“McCain-Feingold and Free Speech; Court Should Take off the Muzzle.” The Washington Times 25 Apr. 2007: A21.