Independent organizations also are increasingly weighing in on presidential elections, paying for issue advertisements that avoid the "vote for" language but often not-so-subtly promote or attack particular candidates. Coordination between the organization and a campaign is prohibited; the money spent on these ads, therefore, does not count toward a candidate's spending limit. The ads must clearly state who paid for them. Individuals, groups and corporations may donate to these organizations, which must file a report with the FEC. So far in this election, the Sierra Club, the National Right to Life Committee, the National Smokers Alliance, Republicans for Clean Air, the Republican Leadership Council, Americans for Tax Reform and Hands Across New Jersey are among the groups that have broadcast issue ads attacking various policy positions of different presidential candidates.
In 1988, the Republican and Democratic parties began exploiting a major loophole in the laws. By insisting that they would not use the money to benefit federal candidates, each party solicited huge donations from wealthy individuals, corporations and unions. The parties then used this unregulated "soft money"--often donated in amounts of $100,000 and more--to fund get-out-the-vote efforts, party positions and tens of millions of dollars in issue advertising that clearly benefited the party's candidate. In return, the parties offered large donors special perks such as meeting with high-level government officials. In 1996, the parties raised $262 million in soft money, triple the amount they had raised in 1992.
Because lawmakers who benefit from the current campaign finance system must vote on any changes, reform efforts have died in Congress for many years. Last fall, the House voted 252-177 to ban soft money in federal elections and to require that issue ads be paid for with regulated funds, and that the identity of donors to the groups be disclosed.
A Senate filibuster prevented a similar bill from coming up for a vote.
GOP candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic rivals Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley all support a ban on all soft money. Bush has called for a ban on unregulated contributions by corporations and unions, but not by individuals. Gore has challenged the GOP nominee to ban the use of soft money in the 2000 general election and to forgo televised ads in exchange for twice-weekly debates.
In addition to the $1,000 per candidate that individuals may contribute during the primary cycle, they may donate up to $1,000 to a candidate's compliance fund during the general election to pay for legal and accounting expenditures. Individuals also may contribute up to $20,000 in so-called hard money a year to a national political party committee, but total hard-money contributions to federal elections--presidential, congressional candidates and parties--may not exceed $25,000 per donor per year. There is no limit to the amount of soft money that individuals, corporations or unions may give to political parties, nor is there a cap on donations to independent organizations that run issue ads during campaigns.