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Campaign Money Laws Examined: Laws Unlikely to Affect Jewish Giving

Jewish community officials say the new campaign finance laws will not change the way they do business or affect the Jewish community’s influence in politics.

Most Jewish groups were silent last week when the Supreme Court upheld a ban on unlimited contributions to political parties, known as soft money. The Jewish community had, with some exceptions, remained out of the fray during the years-long debate over campaign finance reform.

The conundrum for the Jewish community was whether Jews should support legislation that would level the playing field for all groups to contribute to the political process, or oppose a law that could reduce the influence of Jews.

Several Jewish leaders said they felt uncomfortable backing the McCain-Feingold legislation when it moved through Congress last year because Jews had done so well under the old rules. Soft money often bought Jews political access.

Soft-money donations to political parties previously were unregulated, and Jews were large donors to both political parties. The money was used to promote the party and to buy advertisements to support candidates in individual races.

“Soft money clearly bought access to people and got them seats at various meeting tables and convention tables,” said Ken Goldstein, professor of political science and Judaic studies at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison. “Jews have been major soft money contributors.”

Haim Saban, a Jewish media mogul, gave a $7 million check to the Democratic National Committee shortly before the new laws went into effect last year for the construction of the Democratic National Committee’s high-tech headquarters.

Other Jewish fund-raisers say they are not worried that Jewish influence in politics will wane because of the new regulations.

Morris Amitay, treasurer of Washington PAC, a pro-Israel fund-raising political action committee, said Jews largely support individual candidates, not political parties. Such direct donations to campaigns are known as hard money. The amount of hard money a candidate can receive from a donor was increased as part of the new campaign finance laws, to $2,000 from $1,000.

Those donations were almost entirely hard-money gifts

“It’s the corporations and the interest groups that give the big bucks that are now more constrained,” Amitay said.

Supporters of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the lead Israel lobbyist in Washington, also give hard- money donations to congressional candidates.

Goldstein said that the pool of people that can contribute $2,000 to a campaign is small, and Jews who can give that amount still will be courted and influential. And with fewer people giving million-dollar donations, the influence of individual donors who give at the $2,000 level will rise.

Goldstein said that with the fall of soft money, the influence of “bundlers” — those who can amass numerous checks from like-minded people — would rise and be more important in Jewish community fund-raising circles.

“The focus is going to be on going through the Rolodex and raising funds,” Goldstein said.

He said the Jewish community, with its long-established institutional structures, might be at an advantage in this area. Jewish groups were active in this area for years, before soft money became a key avenue for givers.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs first took a position on campaign finance reform in 1998. It did not endorse any provisions of the McCain-Feingold legislation but urged an open debate to strengthen the democratic institutions inherit in political campaigns. The council took a similar position in 2001.

“The community engaged in a philosophical, pragmatic discussion of a whole slew of reforms that were pummeled around,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, a member of the JCPA.

He said the Jewish community has been more interested in election reform, making sure minorities have equal access to the system.

Only the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism backed the Supreme Court decision last week.

“For too long, powerful interests have wielded vastly disproportionate influence on our political process, using unregulated ‘soft money’ contributions to leverage pressure on a range of issues,” said Mark Pelavin, the RAC’s associate director. He said the reforms are “not a panacea” but “a significant step on a long road toward a democracy where a person’s wealth no longer determines his or her political influence.”

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