WASHINGTON — The commercial bank lobby is expected to benefit if the drive to reform campaign finance laws succeeds.

That is because the McCain-Feingold legislation, slated for a vote in the Senate today, would ban soft money — the unlimited amounts of cash that companies, unions, and individuals may donate to political parties.

And unlike its rivals in the securities and insurance sectors, the banking industry does not give much soft money.

“A soft-money ban would serve banks very well — most don’t use soft money,” said Annie Hall, a former Bank One lobbyist who now runs Hard Money Inc., a consulting firm that helps corporations establish political action committees.

Campaign finance reform could make commercial banks — big and small — the dominant lobbying force within the financial services industry, she said.

Soft-money giving has exploded, with the Republican and Democratic parties pulling in $487.5 million in the 2000 elections, up from $86.1 million in 1992. Critics claim the large sums force politicians to rely too heavily on big-buck donations from special interests.

Kenneth A. Guenther, president and chief executive officer of the Independent Community Bankers of America, said the legislation would help his members. “The little guys can’t play in the soft-money game,” he said, adding that the current system stacks the deck in big banks’ favor “to the detriment of small banks.”

Mr. Guenther sees campaign finance reform as a way to even things out: “This is an urgent matter for community banks.”

Bankers traditionally rely on hard money — the strictly limited contributions individuals and political action committees make directly to candidates or political parties. “The financial services industry is not a major player in the soft-money field,” said the American Bankers Association chief lobbyist, Edward L. Yingling.

In addition to banning soft money, the legislation would double the $1,000 cap on contributions that individuals may make in the primary and general elections. It would not change laws governing political action committees, which may collect up to $5,000 from individuals annually and may donate $5,000 to a candidate per election, $15,000 to a political party annually, and $5,000 a year to any other PAC.

It is not clear whether the House will pass the bill, but President Bush is expected to sign a campaign finance bill if one lands on his desk.

According to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, commercial banks contributed $25 million to federal candidates during the 2000 election cycle, only 24% of it in the form of soft money. Securities firms gave nearly $89 million during the 2000 elections. Of that, almost 44% was in the form of soft-money donations. The insurance industry, led by Blue Cross/Blue Shield, gave roughly $40.5 million, of which 39.5% was soft money.

James Butera, a partner at the law and lobbying firm Butera & Andrews, said the elimination of soft money would change the lobbying landscape dramatically. In the soft-money game, corporations and unions are the big players. If the reform bill is enacted, political action committees and individuals will become more important, Mr. Butera said.

The securities industry raises most of its funds from individual brokers, and it may be able to redirect some of these soft-money contributions from political parties to individual candidates, which would make them hard money donations.

But Marc Lackritz, president of the Securities Industry Association, said Securities and Exchange Commission rules bar many of his members from contributing to candidates who have the authority to issue municipal bonds if their firms want to underwrite those bonds.

For example, brokers could not give directly to President Bush’s campaign because he was a sitting governor. “We’re already hobbled politically at the state and local level,” Mr. Lackritz said. “We’ll have to find new and innovative ways of communicating with people.”

However, a ban on soft money could hit the insurance industry hardest. Many insurance companies rely heavily on soft money; many are mutually owned and therefore do not have to fear questions from stockholders about why profits are being used as campaign contributions.

Insurance industry sources were unavailable to comment Friday, but Robert A. Rusbuldt, executive vice president of the Independent Insurance Agents of America, agreed that a soft money ban would hurt insurance companies.

“McCain-Feingold would be a hit on the insurance company side of the industry because insurance companies are able to use their corporate money, soft money, to finance campaigns and political parties and state parties in a way that makes them huge players,” he said. “Most small business groups would say that McCain-Feingold is actually good for them because it does level the playing field.”

Shareholder concern is one reason why banks have traditionally shied away from big corporate soft dollar donations. The industry also cannot match the huge individual donations of securities executives because salaries are much lower. That leaves one option, small contributions employees make to a bank’s political action committee, which is how the bulk of the industry’s political donations are raised.

Mr. Yingling does not believe passage of the McCain-Feingold bill will have much effect on banks, because the soft-money contributions from brokers and insurers have not trumped the banking industry’s strong grassroots lobbying powers.

“I don’t think their soft money made a material difference,” he said.


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