Senate to Vote on Campaign Finance Reform After Columbus Day
Buoyed by House Success, Senate Reformers Modify Bill to Attract Swing Republicans
On Sept. 14, the House of Representatives passed, for the second straight year, the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill by a decisive vote of 252-177. A courageous quarter of House Republicans (54) defied their party leadership and voted with the overwhelming majority of Democrats to ban “soft money” contributions to political parties and treat phony issue ads as the campaign ads they really are.
In a move to strip opponents of their obfuscating “free speech” argument against the legislation, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) have taken out provisions subjecting independent groups? sham issue ads to the same contribution limitations and disclosure requirements as official campaign ads. However, the bill?s comprehensive ban on soft money — identical to that in the Shays-Meehan bill — would prevent political parties and their agents, federal candidates and officeholders from raising soft money or steering it to nonprofit groups for such ads. The other major provision of the new bill requires labor unions to annually notify non-union members, whom they represent for collective bargaining purposes, that they may file an objection entitling them to have their representation fees reduced by the amount used for political purposes.
The trimmed-down bill is designed not only to defuse Republican opposition but also to provide an opportunity to build support for the legislation through additional bipartisan amendments during Senate consideration. Under pressure from reformers, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) agreed to permit a week of debate on the McCain-Feingold measure, which is likely to be taken up on Oct. 8. It will conclude on or about Oct. 15 with a vote to cut off a filibuster against the bill. Lott and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), will lead the filibuster aimed at defeating the majority-supported bill — as they have three times in the past two years. Reformers, who have 52 votes (including seven Republicans), must gain eight, for a total of 60, to end the filibuster.
This is the critical moment for campaign finance reform in the 106th Congress. There is now a significantly greater chance than any time in the past few years that the Senate will pass — or come close to passing and consider again next year — a strong soft money ban to prohibit the largest and most corrupting donations.
Business Support for Bill Is Growing
Key corporate leaders have recently spoken out against the party leaders? soft money shakedown. In July, President Charles Kolb and Chairman Frank Doyle of the prestigious, business-led Committee for Economic Development (CED), publicly called for a soft money ban as well as other campaign finance reforms. “The explosion of soft money,” they said, “has left voters feeling disenfranchised, and businesses feel mounting pressure to give greater amounts of soft money because their competitors do.” The CED?s proposals have been endorsed by a broad cross-section of business leaders, including top executives from Prudential Insurance, Sara Lee, Cargill, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, International Paper, Pfizer and The Carlyle Group.
With new momentum gathering behind reform, those addicted to the soft money system are getting nervous. After all, the Republican and Democratic parties raised $57 million in soft money during the first six months of 1999 alone — 75 percent more than in 1995, the last pre-presidential year, according to the Federal Election Commission. Considering these numbers, plus the soft money collected by state parties, congressional “leadership PACs” and nonprofit organizations, it is estimated that total soft money spending in the 2000 elections will exceed $500 million.
As head of the NRSC, the main fund-raising vehicle for Senate Republicans, McConnell has written to certain trustees of the CED urging them to resign from the group because of they advocated “anti-business speech controls.” CED leaders responded to McConnell on Aug. 23, observing, “We find it ironic that you are such a fervent defender of First Amendment freedoms but seem intent to stifle our efforts to express publicly our concerns about a campaign finance system that many feel is out of control.”
Meanwhile, Americans for Tax Reform and the National Right to Life Committee, which received $4.6 million and $650,000 respectively in soft money from the Republican National Committee during the 1996 election, held press conferences last week to blast McCain for his leadership of the reform effort.
Likely Arguments from Bill Opponents
1) Cap, don?t ban, soft money:
When the climactic vote occurs, several “swing” Republican senators who have publicly expressed their dissatisfaction with the soft money system will hold the key to the result. Some of them appear to be wrestling with the temptation to vote against a filibuster only if the bill is significantly weakened. For example, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) has advocated “capping” rather than banning soft money. But that would continue to allow corporations and unions, which are not legally permitted to contribute directly to candidates, to distort the political process. Furthermore, since the McCain-Feingold bill already allows individuals to give up to $30,000 a year ($60,000 per couple) to political parties ($5,000 more than current law), why give wealthy contributors even more influence over the parties by allowing them to give tens of thousands more in soft money?
2) Raise the “hard” money limit:
Others have indicated that they would like to raise the amount an individual can contribute directly to a candidate (known as hard money) from $1,000 to $3,000 and increase the aggregate annual amount an individual can contribute to candidates, political action committees and parties from $30,000 to $50,000. Similar amendments were soundly defeated by more than two-thirds of the House just two weeks ago. By bringing in a lot of new big money, the suggested changes would weaken the impact of a soft money ban and put even more political influence over government policy into the hands of large contributors.
It?s bad enough that contributions ranging from $749 to $1,000 accounted for 50 percent of all contributions to Senate campaigns in 1998, according to a Public Citizen analysis of Federal Election Commission records. Only a tenth of one percent of Americans give $1,000 contributions. Proponents of raising the hard money ceiling complain that the limits have not been raised to account for inflation since 1974. But the constitutional justification for contribution limits, according to the Supreme Court, is not some inflation thermometer but the threat of corruption or the appearance of corruption.
3) Restrict Union Activities:
Some have complained that the soft money ban restricts campaign contributions mainly from corporations and wealthy individuals but does nothing to stop labor unions from using membership dues to advocate and organize among their rank and file on behalf of federal candidates. These critics fail to mention that corporations and other voluntary associations have the exact same rights under federal law as unions to make partisan communications to their executives and shareholders or members.
Even without their soft money, labor?s business rivals are hardly disadvantaged by the current system of assisting political campaigns. For example, corporate PACs raised $69 million in voluntary contributions, largely from executives, during the 1998 congressional elections. Meanwhile, labor PACs raised only $41 million, mainly from staff and members. Furthermore, according to a Center for Responsive Politics analysis, even without counting soft money, business contributed 10 times as much as labor ($450 million to $49 million) during the 1996 elections.
The notion that labor union members, as opposed to shareholders in corporations or members of, for instance, the National Rifle Association, cannot be trusted to participate responsibly in voluntary private groups (no one is required to join a labor union) and to leave them if they fundamentally disagree with their activities, is insulting to millions of workers. Nor is it in the American tradition to have “big brother” micro-managing private organizations on behalf of their members.
Where government protection is needed is when non-members of unions are required to pay “agency fees” to unions because they benefit from collective bargaining activities. Unlike union members, these employees have no ability to elect union officers or otherwise participate in determining union priorities. Therefore, the McCain-Feingold bill rightly codifies the Supreme Court?s 1988 Beck decision, which gives non-members objecting to union political activities unrelated to collective bargaining the right to have their fees reduced.
If enough of the swing Republican senators show the political courage that many of their House colleagues did and oppose the Lott-McConnell filibuster, Congress will take a significant step toward necessary campaign reform. The key swing states and senators, along with their Washington, D.C., and state office telephone numbers, are:
ARKANSAS: Tim Hutchinson, 202-224-2353, 501-324-6336
DELAWARE: William Roth, 202-224-2441, 302-674-3308
ILLINOIS: Peter Fitzgerald, 202-224-2854, 217-492-5089}
INDIANA: Richard Lugar, 202-224-4814, 317-226-5555
KANSAS: Sam Brownback, 202-224-6521, 785-233-2503
MICHIGAN: Spencer Abraham, 202-224-4822, 248-350-0510
NEBRASKA: Chuck Hagel, 202-224-4224, 402-476-1400
OREGON: Gordon Smith, 202-224-3753, 503-326-3386