Analysts: Court Ruling Will Have Little Effect on McCain-Feingold

By Moira Jeremiah O'Brien | July 7, 2008 | 8:27 PM EDT

( - While many observers believe Monday's Supreme Court ruling on campaign spending limits will fuel campaign finance reform efforts in Congress, not all analysts are convinced.

The court ruling, which upheld the status quo caps on coordinated expenditures, comes just as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.) are pushing a campaign finance reform bill through Congress.

The McCain-Feingold bill seeks to regulate soft money contributions by prohibiting donations from corporations and unions and by limiting individual donations to national parties to $20,000 a year.

McCain and others expressed optimism about the bill's passage in the House after passing the Senate by a vote of 51-49.

"Clearly, this decision demonstrates that McCain-Feingold restrictions on campaign contributions are constitutional. Our opponents will have to find some other excuse not to enact laws to restore Americans' confidence in our political system," McCain said Monday.

Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), who previously have introduced bills in the House that were similar to McCain-Feingold, were also pleased with the court's ruling.

"The Supreme Court's decision is wind in the sails of the movement to reform our badly broken campaign finance system. The court clearly takes contribution limits very seriously as a way to prevent corruption," Shays and Meehan said in a joint statement.

"We are even more confident today the court will uphold a soft money ban - which, like coordinated party spending limits, protects the integrity of contribution limits," they said.

But not everyone interpreted the ruling as a boost to the McCain-Feingold bill. Since Monday's ruling does not touch on the topic of "soft money," some believe it will have little effect on McCain-Feingold.

In fact, Monday's ruling contrasted with a 1996 Supreme Court ruling on a different aspect of the same case, where the court ruled as unconstitutional, limits on party money spent independently of the candidate's campaign.

Don McGhan, general counsel for the National Republican Congressional Committee, disagreed with McCain's take on the ruling.

"It's not on the mark," McGhan told "To me you could actually read this case as going against his bill ... His bill says parties can't do both coordinated expenditures and independent expenditures. But the court has already ruled that to be unconstitutional."

The court's 1996 defense of non-campaign money is a topic more closely related to the bill than Monday's issue. If the Supreme Court has upheld non-campaign party spending in the past, it might do so again if McCain-Feingold is passed.

But others have taken a more cautious approach in speculating what the ruling's effect might be for McCain-Feingold.

Jack Strayer, vice president of external affairs for the National Center for Policy Analysis, commented on the contrast between the 1996 ruling and Monday's.

"Clearly the courts are trying to make a distinction between campaign financing of political parties and campaign financing of legislative events," he said. "It seems the courts may be reluctant to deal judiciously with federal legislative races.

"In other words, constitutionally, courts should be more involved in how money is raised than how it's spent," he said.