Apr. 6, 2012

McCain-Feingold Uncut

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Dear fellow political nerds,

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Ben Calhoun and Alex Blumberg here, with something we thought you might enjoy: an extended version of the interview that we, along with NPR's Andrea Seabrook, did with Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and former Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI). We did this as part of our episode on lobbying and campaign finance, Take The Money And Run For Office.

McCain and Feingold don't need a lot of introduction, and one of the things they’re most well-known for is the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act – known to people in DC as BCRA (pronounced bick-RAH), and known to people most other places as “McCain-Feingold.”

We wanted to speak to the two of them because when the US Supreme Court drastically changed American politics with its Citizens United decision, it effectively undid a lot of what McCain-Feingold had done. BCRA’s goal was to limit the flow of money into American politics. The Citizens United decision arguably opened up the door for more money in politics than ever before.

We wanted to talk to McCain and Feingold about how they felt about the reforms they fought so hard to pass, now that they’ve been significantly undermined by the Supreme Court.

We knew both men had a reputations for being candid, and figured they wouldn’t like the decision much, but we walked out of the interview surprised at how blunt and openly angry they were. We were also surprised how openly critical they were of the court. When we talked afterward, we realized that each of us thought, at several points during the interview, "I can't believe that was the 2008 Republican nominee for president talking like that."

The conversation left a real impression on all three of us.

It is also – as far we know, and as far as they and their staffs can recall – the first interview they’ve done together in years.

So, given all that, we wanted to offer this extended version of our conversation with them.

One word of caution, both of them talk like people who have lived and breathed this stuff for years. They assume a certain amount of knowledge about the law they passed, about Citizens United, about how fundraising works. If you're a level 10 political nerd, it won't be an issue, go ahead and hit play right below.

For everyone else, we’ve put together a quick primer of two or three things you should know going into this, so you don't get tripped up. You’ll find it immediately below the audio.

Listen to McCain-Feingold Uncut: Download Audio. Transcript.

McCain-Feingold – The actual name of the law was Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. This law did a few different things. But in a nutshell, the key things to know about this are:

A long time ago, corporations and unions had been banned from contributing directly to candidates. And in the 1970’s, limits were placed on how much individuals could give to candidates. But even after that, unions, corporations, and wealthy donors would get around those restrictions by giving unlimited amounts of money to the parties. The parties would then spread that money around, using it in elections all over the country. This was called “soft money.” McCain-Feingold attempted to get this unlimited source of money out of American politics by banning the parties from taking soft money.

The law also banned corporations and unions from airing “electioneering” materials in the last 30 days before a primary, or in the last 60 days before a general election. This would have been a way for the corporations and unions to go around the soft money ban and just channel money out of their treasuries and directly into elections.

Citizens United - It'll help to know that the Citizens United case involved a non-profit corporation named Citizens United. In 2008, the group wanted to run what it called a documentary film about now Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who at the time was running for president. The film was essentially an extended negative ad against Clinton, and so airing it would have violated the McCain-Feingold ban on “electioneering” communications.

All of this went to court. In its Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court said McCain-Feingold ban was an unconstitutional violation of freedom of speech.

This cleared the path for the creation of new political funds – enter super PACs – which can take unlimited amounts from corporations or unions – and these groups could then spend very freely in elections.

Anyway, when McCain gets really cutting about saying "this group" made a movie just to challenge this, he’s referring to The Citizens United group and the movie about Hillary Clinton.

527s - These were the super PACs of yesterday. Only they weren't as powerful. They were more like kindofsuper PACs. They were non-profit-type groups that could take unlimited contributions and spend the money doing political stuff – like running commercials. Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and Moveon.org: both 527s.

These groups, however, were supposed to limit their commercials and advocacy to issues. They were supposed to stop short of saying “vote for or don’t vote for this guy.” So their influence was restricted in some ways.

Bundling – Feingold mentions this. This is a practice that started after legal limits were placed on campaign contributions. It really took off after McCain-Feingold put tougher limits on campaign finance.

Bundlers are people who gather a bunch of smaller, limited contributions from many different donors and tie them together. They then direct the bundle into a candidate's campaign fund, or into a party’s political fund. In a campaign environment where a 100-thousand dollar donation to a candidate is not allowed, these bundlers create really huge, but totally legitimate, pots of money that they can throw around.

We’ve also attached a transcript of the full interview, for anyone interested.