A Primer on Political Soft Money

By Kate Harveston on October 16, 2017

Start with three questions:

  • If you keep your front door bolted and alarmed against burglars but your porch door is always open, do you feel safe?

  • Would you do a lot for some generous chap who gives you $100,000?

  • Would you rather be paid in US dollars than in inflated Venezuelan bolivars?

If you answer “yes” to these three questions, you instinctively know the difference between soft money and hard money both now and in the past. You also can spot the difference between the real world and fairyland.

In the past, soft money meant flooding the country with easy, cheap money in place of pricey gold. Everyone would have more to spend, although of course, it would be worth less. Today easier- to-obtain “soft-money" means it is easier for politicians to build large war chests without a lot of pesky legal restraints. Both are fairyland ideas.

Fairyland Favored

Unfortunately, the American political campaign system continues to opt for fairyland where only relatively small campaign contributions to politicians are tightly controlled and transparent. 

That’s hard money. And it provides the voters with the warm feeling that all is on the up and up.

But in the American political industrial complex, campaigns are also legally allowed to accept contributions of any size with an important restriction: it's money that cannot be used directly to promote voting for a candidate but only to educate voters on issues favored by the same candidate.

That’s soft money. And the politicians privately love it while publicly deploring it. For example, in a moment of rare candor, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) was heard to say “soft money will find its way and seep into the political system unless we plug every hole.”

Holes Stay Open for Good Reason 

Running for any office today is expensive. Running for national office is exorbitantly expensive. Hard money buys the stamps. Soft money pays for the freight.

Soft money also opens the floodgates for corruption.

The big soft money comes from big unions, corporations, and wealthy individuals. Ostensibly, the contributions are made to support important ideas and causes. It’s all claimed to be for the greater good.  No special favor, no special access is claimed to be expected.

If you believe this, you may also be living in the fairyland.

Serious questions regarding true motive are raised by some of the very ways that soft money is collected.  Corporations and unions give directly to various PACs, creating comforting distance between giver and action. Even greater distance can be established by having corporate and union officials make the contributions.

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Other popular methods:

  • Influential individuals, “bundlers,” will essentially act as harvesters of large contributions.

  • Hollywood and business celebrities will host exclusive private parties for wealthy individuals with secret guest lists.

  • Politicians will address private meetings for mind-boggling fees.

Change Is Possible

Soft-money reformers have poked for years at the campaign finance laws that allow soft money. Reform proposals are often highly complicated and slippery. Success so far is highly limited. Reformers see soft money as the diseased soft underbelly of American politics.

Some suggest a simpler, straightforward approach. Abolish the difference between soft and hard money.  Allow political contributions of any amount directly to candidates or their parties. Make full disclosure of the contributors and contributions within 24 hours.

Some also suggest a companion reform. Political campaigns today can run, in some cases, almost continuously from one election to the next. The longer they run, the more expensive they get. Shorten them by law to 90 days and the need for money is enormously decreased.

There is a major complementary benefit to such a reform. It frees elected politicians to do what they said they would do, and were elected to do, rather than spending their time raising money and campaigning.

Politicians doing what they were elected to do — now there’s a welcome change.