Experts Weigh Impact of Campaign Finance Ruling

Although experts disagree about the impact it will have, they concur that the new campaign finance law, upheld this week by the Supreme Court, will offer no panacea for establishing a proper framework for money and politics.

The Supreme Court issued its ruling Wednesday in support of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (search). But while the court registered its support, justices supporting the law said it is not the magic potion needed to halt the influence of cash over the political process.

"We are under no illusion that [BCRA] will be the last congressional statement on the matter," wrote Justices John Paul Stevens and Sandra Day O'Connor in the 5-4 majority opinion. "Money, like water, will always find an outlet. What problems will arise, and how Congress will respond, are concerns for another day."

BCRA seeks to limit the influence of big donors by banning soft money — unregulated donations to the national parties from corporations, individuals and unions — and regulating issue advertisements by prohibiting their television runs in the 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election.

Supporters of the law, first sponsored by Sens. John McCain (search), R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold (search), D-Wis., said cash can't be totally separated from politics, but the law will regulate the massive dumping of money into the parties and help restore public faith in the political system.

The law effectively addresses "the danger that officeholders will decide issues not on the merits or the desires of their constituencies, but according to the wishes of those who have made large financial contributions valued by the officeholder," Stevens and O'Connor wrote.

"If we reach a stage where the people believe [their representatives] no longer have in mind the interests of their constituents, but that of big money contributors, the fundamental premise of our democracy breaks down," said attorney Seth P. Waxman, who defended the law before the Supreme Court.

Waxman agreed that the court's support of the law won't solve all the demons of campaign financing. 

"This decision is not going to end the burrowing away of loopholes in the system. That doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile to repair it, but this is a process that requires periodic repair and this decision empowers Congress to do that," he said.

Opponents of the law, led by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and a host of special interest groups ranging from the National Rifle Association (search) to the American Civil Liberties Union (search), said the McCain-Feingold legislation demands that regulated campaign funds pay for television and radio ads in the days preceding an election. They worried, as did minority opinion writer Justice Antonin Scalia, that free speech would be sacrificed.

"This is a sad day for the freedom of speech," Scalia wrote in a dissenting opinion. The First Amendment is meant to protect "the right to criticize the government."

Attorney Kenneth Starr (search), who defended the plaintiffs, said the opposition to the law was mischaracterized as "seedy and dark" and leading to a frightening nexus of politics and money.

"Jurassic Park in pinstripes," Starr called it.

Starr called the court's decision bold and significant in its impact on the First Amendment.

"There will be a diminution of speech by various and sundry groups," including corporations and nonprofits, he predicted.

"The notion that the government can tell an organization like the ACLU when and how it should address important civil liberties issues is a form of censorship masquerading as campaign finance reform," ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero (search), said in a statement after the ruling.

But already, that suggestion is being challenged. Unincorporated, nonprofit and tax-exempt advocacy groups have become the new receptacles of massive amounts of cash.

"You used to be able to give as much as you wanted to the political parties," said Steven Weiss of the Center for Responsive Politics. "That avenue is no longer open. But, you can give those unlimited contributions to these outside groups, so-called 527 groups."

527 groups have earned their name after their citation in the tax code. Several have emerged since the campaign finance laws went into effect last November. The Media Fund (search), for instance, led by former Clinton White House official Harold Ickes, has already collected $10 million.

Billionaire businessman George Soros has already given $10 million to another 527, and has said he may contribute to the Media Fund as well.

Republicans are behind the curve on the use of 527s, but now that the Supreme Court has issued its ruling, a number aimed at supporting GOP candidates are said to be in the works.

Donors are also thinking of other methods of getting around the BCRA. While restrictions are now placed on radio and television advertising, the technology now exists to send video — or something that looks like video — across the World Wide Web, right into voters' e-mail accounts.

Waxman rejected the idea that special interest and lobbying groups will have a hard time getting their voices heard as a result of BCRA.

"The ACLU is such a delicious example of the overheated rhetoric in this case," he said. "In its proud 80-year history it never ran an advertisement that would have been covered by the BCRA legislation until a week before the case, for the express purpose of being a litigant," he said.

And with the possibility that the Federal Election Commission will begin instituting more regulations as a result of the court's ruling, Brookings Institution (search) scholar Thomas Mann predicted that voters can expect to see more litigation soon.

Fox News' Brian Wilson contributed to this report.