The Democratic and Republican parties raised an unprecedented $263.5 million campaign in largely unregulated “soft money” donations during the two-year cycle leading up to last year’s election, a research organization reported Sunday.
The total was almost three times the $89 million the parties collected for the 1991-92 campaign, and roughly 2 times the $106.4 million donated in 1993-94, the organization said in a report being made public today.
Increasing soft-money contributions have prompted congressional investigations of irregularities in political giving. Many experts agree that such numbers prove 1970s-era reforms of the campaign-funding system have become largely meaningless.
Soft money is given by corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals and cannot legally be spent directly on a particular candidate’s behalf. It may be used for generic advertising, get-out-the-vote efforts and other party-building activities.
In today’s report, the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics said Republicans raised $141.2 million in soft money contributions for last year’s campaign, compared with $122.3 million the Democrats collected.
In the 1991-92 presidential election cycle, Democrats raised $37 million and Republicans $52 million. For the midterm congressional races of 1993-94, Democrats trailed with $46.9 million to the Republicans $59.5 million, totaling $106.4 million.
The center, a self-described nonpartisan research group that studies the role money plays in elections and policy making, said both parties used soft money to finance television advertising campaigns featuring their presidential candidates.
To circumvent spending limit rules for publicly financed presidential campaigns, the parties called the TV spots “issue ads,” the center said.
A 1978 ruling by the Federal Election Commission allowed state parties to spend money that would benefit state as well as federal candidates. Only party committees can raise the money, which is intended to build the parties and not to benefit federal campaigns.
Most soft money contributions came from businesses.
The report said Federal Election Commission records indicate companies gave $171.95 million during 1996 alone, or 92 percent of the $187.69 million total for last year. Labor unions contributed $9.9 million in 1996 alone, or 5 percent.
Over the two-year cycle, Republicans got 96 percent of their soft money from business, Democrats 87 percent.
For the two-year cycle, the top soft-money contributions to the Democratic Party were almost $1.3 million from Joseph E. Seagram & Sons.
For the Republicans, the largest soft-money donations during the 1995-96 period were just over $2.52 million from Philip Morris; almost $1.2 million from RJR Nabisco; $764,471 from Atlantic Richfield, and $677,145 from Seagram.