Prominent campaign finance experts discuss controversial new law

September 24, 2002

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—During a Sept. 23 discussion at Vanderbilt University Law School, two attorneys who have advised Republicans about campaign finance reform provided sharply contrasting perspectives about a new law scheduled to take effect Nov. 6, the day after the national mid-term elections.

President George W. Bush signed the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002, widely known as McCain-Feingold, with little fanfare in March. The legislation still faces legal challenges as more than 80 plaintiffs have filed suit to test its constitutionality.

Trevor Potter, who served as general counsel for the 2000 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, and Benjamin L. Ginsberg, who had a similar role with the 2000 Bush-Cheney presidential campaign, presented their opposing views about the legislation during a meeting of the Law School’s Campaign Finance and Elections class. Bob Cooper, an attorney at Bass, Berry & Sims and adjunct professor at the Law School, served as moderator.

While Cooper described the legislation as containing the “most significant, far-reaching changes to campaign finance regulations since the Watergate reforms of the 1970s,” Potter said McCain-Feingold is really a return to the campaign finance norms of 25 years ago. “It does not, in fact, change much, but goes back to the system we had right after Watergate,” Potter said. “The bill takes large soft money contributions out of the federal system and says the national party committees cannot solicit them.”

Potter also noted that the legislation regulates so-called “issue advertising” by outside groups immediately before elections.

Ginsberg, who acknowledged that there are problems with the current system, said he fervently hoped that the U. S. Supreme Court would strike down the law. He pointed to a broad base of opposition to McCain-Feingold, including Democratic and Republican entities, labor groups, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Right to Life organization.

Ginsberg said McCain-Feingold “creates a new universe in which various special interest groups end up running the circus if the law stays in effect.” He argued that special interest groups will be able to use sources of funds that political parties can no longer access, and carry out activities that are more restrictive for the political parties. In addition, he said that national party committees will not be able to spend funds that would be legal under state law if there is inclusion of any candidates running for federal office in the program.

“If an attempt by a political party to mobilize voter turnout even mentions a candidate running for national office, that effort becomes federalized,” Ginsberg said.

Potter, a former commissioner and general counsel of the Federal Election Commission, and Ginsberg, former counsel to the Republican National Committee, did agree on one point: they both believe that campaign finance abuses became much worse during the Clinton administration.

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Contact: Ann Marie Owens, 615-322-NEWS,

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