Since Sen. John McCain’s passing Sunday, many are reflecting on the legacies of his decorated careers as a Navy officer and politician.
McCain served as a Republican senator for Arizona for over 30 years. While there were many policy issues he focused on throughout his tenure, one of his hallmark legislative achievements was in campaign finance reform.
In 2002, he co-sponsored the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as McCain-Feingold. McCain and his Democratic partner, Sen. Russ Feingold from Wisconsin, successfully passed the first major campaign finance law since 1974.
McCain-Feingold was created to prohibit soft money contributions to national political parties, and limited campaign financing to hard money. Soft money is unlimited funding collected by political parties intended for party strengthening, while hard money is donations directly made to a candidate’s campaign.
“Before McCain-Feingold, there was a tremendous amount of money flowing into political parties that was not meant for candidates but was used for them,” said Denise Roth Barber, the managing director for the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Political parties could no longer directly fund election campaign advertisements with soft money contributions; they had to be paid for with hard money. The law also called for candidates to “stand by their ad.” This means a candidate, at the end of a campaign ad, must approve the message.
“The more parties are focused on the channels of the money, the less they are focused on helping to connect people to politicians,” said Mark Schmitt, the director of New America, a policy think tank.
McCain-Feingold was the most significant campaign finance law passed since the Federal Campaign Finance Act Amendments in 1974, which put limits on contributions to federal candidates and political parties in the wake of Watergate.
Proponents of McCain-Feingold said it was necessary to get rid of larger contributions from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals and return to a system dependent on regulated, individual donations, Schmitt said.
“Opponents argued that it would be a restraint on the freedom of corporations, unions and wealthy individuals to express themselves,” Schmitt said.
Eight years later, campaign finance law would see a dramatic change with the Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
The decision in Citizens United granted corporations and nonprofit organizations, trade unions and other associations to spend money independently on federal campaigns, either supporting or opposing candidates.
Despite a reduction in money to political parties, Citizens United allowed for the same amounts of money to flow to politicians, just from different places, Barber said.
Following Citizens United, a DC circuit court cleared the way for super PACs, which allowed individuals and corporations to make unlimited amounts of contributions, as long as they aren’t directly working with campaigns and political parties, Schmitt said.
“Mostly we are back to a pre-McCain-Feingold world where super PACs are taking the place of what were the parties’ soft money funds,” Schmitt said.
Despite McCain being one of the only Republicans to speak out against the Citizens United decision, he was later criticized for avoiding legislation that some lawmakers believed would reverse some of Citizens United.
While campaign finance is no longer the same as it was immediately following McCain-Feingold, there’s no reason to return to that time, Schmitt said.
“It’s really much more valuable to figure out how to make public financing work that lifts candidates up and not make them so dependent on large, independent donations,” Schmitt said.
Regardless, McCain-Feingold remains central to McCain’s congressional legacy. The two senators were able to pass bipartisan legislation on campaign finance that many before couldn’t, Schmitt said.
“It is one his greatest domestic legislative achievements, and it’s almost more for the sheer skill in pulling it off than the actual effect,” Schmitt said.