Campaign Finance Reform: What’s Ahead in the Senate?

Campaign Finance Reform: What’s Ahead In The Senate?

Alert for Editorial Writers and Columnists

After months of insisting he would not bring up campaign finance reform until the Thompson hearings on campaign abuses in 1996 were over, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) agreed last week to allow the Senate to consider a campaign finance bill introduced by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Russ Feingold (D-WI) before Congress adjourns this year. Then, in a surprise move, he brought the bill up for debate on Friday morning, September 26. Debate will continue this week, and key votes that may decide the fate of campaign finance reform in this Congress will likely occur during the week of October 6. We urge you to editorialize in favor of the McCain-Feingold bill at the earliest possible date and ask your Senators to vote against “poison pill” amendments and against a filibuster.

Detailed materials on the key provisions of the new McCain-Feingold bill — soft money, issue advocacy, and union political spending — are enclosed. If you have any questions, please contact Bob Schiff, Public Citizen’s staff attorney on campaign finance matters, at (202) 546-4996 x304, or .@citizen.org>

The Choice

“The fate of meaningful campaign finance reform for this Congress is about to be decided,” said Joan Claybrook, President of Public Citizen. “The Senate faces a clear choice between a bipartisan solution to the soft money scandal on the one hand and partisan obstruction carried out with killer amendments on the other. The American people will be watching this debate closely to see on which side of the battle line their Senators stand.”

“The new McCain-Feingold bill offers the American people a down payment on meaningful campaign finance reform. It is not a comprehensive solution, because it does not reduce spending on Senate campaigns or reduce incumbent fundraising advantages. But make no mistake, it is critical to eliminating the most egregious forms of special access by special interests and deserves our full support.”

The New McCain-Feingold Bill

On Monday, September 29, Sens. McCain and Feingold offered a substitute to their original bill. It is a slimmed down package, designed to secure the 60 votes needed to end a predicted Republican filibuster led by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY). All 45 Democrats have signed a letter in support of this new McCain-Feingold bill, and the President has urged Congress to enact it. Key components of the new package are:

Soft Money Ban — The bill contains a tough prohibition on the unlimited contributions from corporations, labor unions, and wealthy individuals that now flow to the political parties. The parties collected over $262 million in soft money in the 1996 election cycle. In the first six months of this year, they have already raised more than $34 million.

Phony “Issue Ads” and Independent Expenditures — This provision is designed to broaden the definition of “express advocacy” in order to classify more campaign ads as independent expenditures, which must be paid for with money subject to the contribution limitations of federal law. The provision would curtail the use of phony “issue ads,” paid for by corporate and union money. It is estimated that the political parties and outside groups spent over $150 million in the 1996 election on phony “issue ads.” Many of these ads would be considered independent expenditures under the new provision.

Union Spending — This provision will codify the Supreme Court’s Beck decision, which allows individuals who are not members of unions but who pay an “agency fee” to a union to have their fee reduced if they don’t want the money used for political purposes.

Enhanced Disclosure — The bill will require computer filing and prompt disclosure on the Internet, and will address a few other problems with the Federal Election Commission.

Voluntary Personal Wealth Spending Limitation — Candidates will be asked to limit spending from their own personal wealth to $50,000 per election. Parties will be permitted to make coordinated expenditures in support of only those candidates who agree to the limit.

Stripped from the original McCain-Feingold bill are voluntary spending limits for Senate candidates, free and reduced-price TV time for complying candidates, reductions in the amounts that PACs can contribute to campaigns, and restrictions on bundling of contributions.

To address some of the problems with congressional campaigns, Sens. McCain and Feingold also plan to offer an amendment intended to level the playing field for challengers. Candidates who agree to limit their PAC and out-of-state receipts will receive discounted TV and postage benefits.

Lott’s Strategy To Kill Reform

Majority Leader Lott has been surprisingly open about his strategy in this campaign finance debate. Last week, he candidly stated he will offer an amendment to the McCain-Feingold proposal that includes several “poison pills.” If his amendment passes, Lott said, “I’ve set it up where they’re going to be doing the filibustering.” Senator Lott wants to sink reform and blame the Democrats for doing it.

Legislative Timeline

Sept. 29-Oct. 3 — On September 29, Senators McCain and Feingold offered their new proposal as a complete substitute to S. 25, which was their original bill. Majority Leader Lott immediately offered an amendment dealing with labor union use of dues money for political purposes. Using a parliamentary tactic known as “filling the amendment tree,” he ensured that the first vote taken will be on that amendment. The Senate will continue general debate on the McCain-Feingold bill and the Lott amendment this week, although it will take a take a short recess for the Jewish holidays. A vote on the Lott amendment is possible, but not likely.

Oct. 6-10 — If it has not yet occurred, a vote on the Lott amendment will take place during this week, and other amendments from both sides of the aisle are likely to be voted on as well. A cloture vote on McCain-Feingold to cut off debate and even a vote on final passage are possible during this week.

Oct. 13-17 — The Senate is scheduled to be in recess for the Columbus Day holiday during this week. If debate on campaign finance reform is not yet finished, it will resume on Oct. 20.

Key Points Of Debate

Senator Lott’s amendment is very similar to the “Paycheck Protection Act,” introduced early this year as S. 9 by Sen. Don Nickles (R-OK). The Nickles proposal is a true “poison pill,” unacceptable to organized labor and Democrats. It requires prior written authorization before any dues or fees collected from union members or non-members can be used for lobbying or participating in any political campaign. It purports to apply also to corporations, but there is no evidence that corporations are requiring employees to pay fees or dues as a condition of employment and then turning around and spending that money for political purposes. It does not, of course, require a corporation to get written permission from its shareholders before using its resources before spending corporate funds for political purposes. This provision is aimed squarely at labor, and at killing campaign finance reform.

Republicans have argued repeatedly that they merely want to enforce the Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Communications Workers of America v. Beck, but the Nickles proposal goes far beyond Beck. That case dealt with a union’s use of “agency fees” collected from non-members in lieu of dues under a union security clause. The case said nothing about the rights of union members, just as it has no relevance to the activities of other voluntary membership organizations. In contrast, the new McCain-Feingold bill contains a true codification of the Beck decision.

Senator Lott or Sen. McConnell will likely offer another amendment at some point that would significantly raise the amounts that wealthy individuals can contribute to candidates and parties. Such a proposal undercuts the ban on soft money. Rather than slipping through the back door of the campaign finance laws, wealthy donors will just stride in the front. These increases should also be opposed because the new McCain-Feingold bill no longer addresses Senate campaign spending or the cost of campaigns due to objections of many Republicans to voluntary spending limits and free television advertising time.

Key Senators

A majority vote of the Senate (51) will be required to defeat the Lott amendment. If the vote is 50-50, Vice President Gore will probably cast a vote against the amendment to defeat it. All 45 Democrats will certainly oppose it. Republicans John McCain (AZ) and Fred Thompson (TN), and probably Susan Collins (ME), are also likely opponents, making 48. Only two votes are needed from possible Republican opponents to the Lott amendment. Potential votes against the amendment include Olympia Snowe (ME), Arlen Specter (PA), Alfonse D’Amato (NY), and Jim Jeffords (VT). This vote will be a true test of support for campaign finance reform. If Sen. Lott’s amendment passes, campaign reform is dead, as the Democrats will almost certainly filibuster a bill that would rightly be described as favoring Republicans over Democrats.

If Sen. Lott’s amendment fails, the Senate is likely to proceed to a filibuster led by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Sixty votes for a motion to end debate (known as a cloture motion) are required to break the filibuster. (Vice President Gore would not participate in this vote.) Assuming all Democrats, McCain, Thompson and Collins vote for cloture, the heat will be on approximately twenty Republican Senators to provide the votes to allow the majority of the Senate to pass a reform bill this year. Senators Specter and Jeffords have stated they will vote for cloture. These are the Senators who will make the difference:

Spencer Abraham (R-MI)

Chuck Hagel (R-NE)

Wayne Allard (R-CO)

Tim Hutchinson (R-AR)

Sam Brownback (R-KS)

James Jeffords (R-VT)

Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO)

Jon Kyl (R-AZ)

John Chafee (R-RI)

Richard Lugar (R-IN)

Dan Coats (R-IN)

Pat Roberts (R-KS)

Alfonse D’Amato (R-NY)

William Roth (R-DE)

Mike DeWine (R-OH)

Rick Santorum (R-PA)

Pete Domenici (R-NM)

Gordon Smith (R-OR)

Mike Enzi (R-WY)

Olympia Snowe (R-ME)

Bill Frist (R-TN)

Arlen Specter (R-PA)

Charles Grassley (R-IA)