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McCain-Feingold: The Best Thing We've Got

Though far from perfect legislation, the McCain-Feingold bill is the best bet America has for cleaning up politics. Tamara Straus shows why.
 
 
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At a sold-out town meeting in San Francisco's Grand Hyatt last Monday, the 800-member audience behaved more like they were at a rock concert than a lecture on campaign finance reform. "Campaign finance reform is a no-brainer for Americans," said Democratic Senator Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, earning yet another applause-riven standing ovation from the floor. Feingold, with his "strange bedfellow," Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, has been on a cross-country tour to drum up support for their bill, which, beginning March 19, will be debated on the Senate floor.

Though far from perfect legislation, the McCain-Feingold bill has overwhelming popular support. People like it because it bans the "soft money" contributions that have been flowing Niagra Falls-like to the national political parties, and because it restricts "issue ads" from organizations like the NRA that are no more than flimsily disguised campaign commercials. They also understand that during the last four years, unregulated donations to the Democratic Party put a for rent sign on the Lincoln Bedroom, and that banks and credit card companies will likely be rewarded with a pro-industry bankruptcy bill, thanks to the bundles of cash Amex and Mastercard handed over to the Republicans during the 1999-2000 election cycle.

Soft money contributions have become the ultimate loophole to the post-Watergate election reform laws that Congress passed in 1974. Under them, as under the landmark 1907 and 1947 election laws, corporations and labor unions are banned from contributing directly to campaigns. Yet, as the old political saying goes, the money always finds a way. And so it has, through donations to PACs (Political Action Committees) that are ostensibly for party-building activities but are actually used for candidates.

At present, individuals can give no more than $20,000 a year to a national party committee, $1,000 to a candidate for a primary campaign, another $1,000 for a general election and no more than a total of $25,000 to all candidates combined. However there is nothing to stop, let's say, Goldman Sachs from giving $500,000 to support a "special interest agenda," which in turn is used for campaign ads or other "get out the vote" efforts.

Though it flows a little more to the right than the left, both parties benefit from soft money. During the 2000 campaign, Republicans reaped $244 million and Democrats $219 million in such contributions. (Back in 1992, the collective soft money coffers stood at a mere $83 million.)

In San Francisco, McCain joked that the difference between Democratic and Republican fundraising impropriety is the difference between "bribery and extortion." Democrats get bribed; people like Marc Rich "send money to the DNC in order to seek help," he quipped. "We [Republicans] call up people and ask them to send us money so we can give them help. So, you see, there is a difference between bribery and extortion."

The good news is that McCain-Feingold bill -- or the McCain-Feingold-Cochran bill (now that Senator Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) has become a so-sponsor) -- stands its best chance of passage since Republicans took control of Congress in 1995. Back in January, 60 senators, including all 50 Democrats, were said to back the bill, ensuring that it would be free from filibuster threats.

But the bad news is that now the bill has finally reached the Senate floor, its passage is far from assured. Senate Democrats, who have long supported it, suddenly have developed misgivings. They fear a ban on soft money will hamper their newfound success at raising cash, which helps them stay in power.

In an attempt to appeal to reason over greed, Feingold told the San Francisco crowd, "I wish my colleagues would remember ... we don't have the president anymore. We don't have the biggest fund-raiser in America. We're going to get clobbered on soft money this year. We're absolutely crazy if we stay with this system." This may be more rhetorical bluster than truth, though, as Democrats have become almost as chummy with corporations as Republicans in recent years.

Another factor affecting Democratic senators' vote is the AFL-CIO's recent abandonment of the bill. The 13 million-member federation of 66 unions announced in mid-February that it opposes substantial parts of McCain-Feingold -- mainly, the provision to limit issue advocacy ads by unions, nonprofits and business 30 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election.

"We have a direct stake in making sure any campaign finance reform legislation promotes the involvement of workers and unions and citizens generally in the political process and doesn't shut them out of it," said Laurence E. Gold, the associate general counsel of the AFL-CIO, on announcing labor's new stance. This makes sense, but unfortunately the AFL-CIO is not the only special interest group with TV money to burn.

Such fissures in a bill once considered a Democratic no-brainer are giving Republicans exactly what they want: wiggle room. Republicans will likely try to amend McCain-Feingold with a "poison pill" measure designed to repel Democrats. The lead one is a "paycheck protection" measure that would require members' permission for spending union money on political activities.

When asked how successful such a measure would be to influence wayward Democrats, McCain and Feingold seemed to say it was as ridiculous as it was poisonous. "We all know the real problem is not member dues being taken out for political contributions," said McCain.

The senators were equally sarcastic about arguments made by senior Republicans, such as Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, that their bill is anti-free speech. "In our bill, people are free to express themselves, but not to the point of bribery," said Feingold.

Another Republican tactic to water down the bill will likely be to raise the ceiling on "hard money" contributions directly to candidates from $1,000 to $3,000 per election. This will put Republicans in the advantage, as they are the hard money kings, having received $447 million in these smaller contributions compared to Democrats' $270 million last election.

McCain and Feingold -- as well as advocacy groups like Public Citizen, Public Campaign and Common Cause -- argue that such a measure will only reinforce the influence of the rich. "The McCain bill would have banned an estimated $500 million in national party soft money received in the 1999-2000 election cycle," Public Campaign reported in February. "Therefore, if an amendment tripling the hard money limit were added to the bill, it could put back $391 million of this $500 million taken out of political campaigns."

What Public Campaign, Public Citizen and other progressive groups focusing on election reform law really want is "clean" elections. In other words, elections funded by public financing and backed by free television time for candidates. Five years ago this seemed like a pipe dream, but during the past two years Vermont, Maine and most recently Arizona have passed state laws that provide candidates matching funds for campaigns if they do not accept soft money contributions. In Arizona, 36 percent of clean election candidates who ran won this year, as did one third of Maine's legislature, 32 percent of whom were incumbents.

It will be the day when snow falls on Arizona, to use a McCainian, when clean elections become federal law. So the McCain-Feingold bill looks, for now, like the best road to reform. A competing Senate bill sponsored by Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, and Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, proposes loopholes galore, raises the ceiling on individual and PAC donations and thus does nothing to stop the flow of corrupt money into the system.

Best case scenario is that the Democrats don't waffle on the bill, that the 10 Republicans McCain has lined up stay firm and that the bill is passed by the House without mushy amendments. Should this happen, President Bush, who has refrained from saying outright he opposes the bill, will be forced to sign it, lest he look like a corporate lapdog.

Both Senators McCain and Feingold admit that theirs is not a perfect bill, but the best thing going. It does nothing to prevent broadcasters from reaping billions from the campaign system (as did previous versions of the bill) nor is it a surefire preventative against future loopholes. But, as McCain puts it, the bill provides a gateway to other reform measures.

"We need to reform an HMO bill of rights ... We need to reform Social Security and Medicare," he said. "But the gateway to all those is reform of the campaign finance system. We cannot reform those institutions of government unless we reform the way that campaigns are financed."

For information on how to support the McCain-Feingold bill by lobbying your senator, go to AmericansForReform.com.

For more information on campaign finance reform, go to PublicCampaign.org, Public Citizen (www.citizen.org/congress/reform) or CommonCause.org.