Limiting Soft Money

The jury is still out on how the Senate’s campaign finance reform bill would change the political influence of the Jewish community, but experts believe Jewish interests will remain well represented no matter what happens.

After years of protracted arguments, the Senate on Monday set new standards for campaign finance that would affect the way officials receive money and how groups make their voices heard in the political process.

The bill still must pass the House of Representatives, where its chances are considered fair. President Bush has indicated he will sign a campaign finance reform bill that "improves the system."

Legal challenges to the bill are also being considered.

The McCain-Feingold bill would prohibit unregulated contributions by groups or individuals to the parties, known as "soft money" donations. Large donors to the parties — a number of whom are Jewish — would have to find new ways to flex their political muscles.

Among them could be increased "hard money" donations to a greater number of candidates, or financing of issue ad campaigns and direct mail efforts.

Both parties have their share of major Jewish donors, but many agree that the backbone of Jewish giving to campaigns has always been small individual donors. The end result, therefore, could be that Jews would be less affected by the McCain-Feingold bill than other groups.

Some political action committees, or PACs, have bundled such small individual contributions in order to use the group’s power to greater effect.

Dozens of pro-Israel PACs started up in the 1980s, giving money to pro-Israel politicians and working against politicians who opposed Israel. Within a few years, PACs had become a major part of the fundraising establishment.

The campaign finance bill, which passed the Senate Monday by a 59-41 vote, would return some of the influence that PACs lost during the past decade — particularly in recent years, when soft money began to proliferate.

"The big game has always been the hard money," said Tina Stoll, a fundraising consultant in Washington, and the McCain-Feingold bill could force more donors to go that route.

Fund raisers in private homes would continue to be the preferred way to attract premium donors, Stoll said. In addition, she predicted, large Jewish contributors who can no longer funnel money to the national parties would still support state parties and might get more involved in gubernatorial races.

Most experts seem to feel the change would have a relatively small effect on Jewish political involvement.

Ken Goldstein, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, said donors who can’t give million-dollar checks to the parties instead could fund issue advocacy campaigns.

"It’s hard for me to see how this decreases any sort of influence of the Jewish community," Goldstein said.

In fact, the bill would double — to $2,000 — the amount individuals can contribute directly to a candidate. The limit on an individual’s total annual contributions to all federal candidates, parties and PACs also was raised, from $25,000 to $37,500. The amounts would be indexed for inflation.

The bill is "neither a great hindrance nor a great help to Jewish political influence," one source close to the issue said.