Jewish World Review Sept. 23, 1999 /13 Tishrei 5760
They won't have to look far for a sponsor. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has spoken out often on the perils of demon money and knows well its powers of addiction. But this time he's a little more optimistic. "On a scale of 1 to 10 -- 10 being metaphysical certainty -- what are the chances that campaign finance reform will pass the Senate?'' I asked him last week. `Six,'' he replied. "I wish it were 9, but at least it's not 4.''
To move it from 4 to 6, McCain and his co-sponsor, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), have decided to strip their bill of its more controversial provisions, including banning issue ads 60 days before the election. What they've kept intact is the crown jewel of McCain-Feingold: a complete ban on "soft money,'' the unregulated, unlimited contributions to political parties that have become the lifeblood of our corrupt politics.
The Democratic National Committee announced this summer that it planned to raise $200 million of the stuff in time for the presidential race, which prompted former Carter pollster Pat Caddell to conclude that "to get that kind of money there will have to be a fire sale of the government. This time they won't be renting the Lincoln Bedroom, they'll be selling whole wings and entire Cabinet departments.'' Republicans are just as deeply engaged in the public policy sell-off, having already raised $29 million in soft money, a 45 percent increase over the amount raised in the same period four years ago.
It's not just reformers and those shut out of the system who are disgusted by what's happening. Corporate leaders, who are at the heart of the soft money quid pro quo, are beginning to balk at the shakedowns. "The pressure to give soft money can be quite intense,'' said Edward Kangas of the Committee for Economic Development (CED), a group of business executives that has come out in favor of banning soft money and curbing issue ads. "And the more a business is impacted by federal regulation, the more it feels it doesn't have a choice.'' But extortion is such an ugly word, when "soft money'' is so much easier on the ears.
As Charles Kolb, president of the Committee and a former Bush administration official, added: "We're tired of being hit up and shaken down .... The subtext is, `If you won't play with me, I won't play with you.' '' The subtext became the text when McConnell, the human roadblock standing in the way of campaign finance reform, sent blistering letters to members of the CED urging them to resign because of the committee's "all-out campaign to eviscerate private-sector participation in politics.'' I guess he forgot that other way the private sector can participate in politics -- voting.
When the offending bill came to the Senate floor in the last Congress, it garnered a majority of 52 votes, but was filibustered to death by McConnell and his friends. McCain and Feingold hope their bare-bones version can attract a filibuster-proof 60 votes. Ellen Miller of Public Campaign isn't hopeful. "I see no procedure, no tactical policy compromise, that will budge Mitch McConnell,'' she told me.
Last week McConnell compared his enemies' return year after year to "Glenn Close in the bathtub in `Fatal Attraction.' '' Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) draws on a different historic parallel. "This is like the civil-rights struggle,'' he told me. "We have to keep bringing the bill up again and again and again, forcing its opponents to expose themselves by filibustering it.''
The new McCain-Feingold strategy deprives opponents of their favorite high-falutin' argument: that it's an assault on the First Amendment. Soft-money corporate contributions -- often equally dispersed to both parties -- can be looked at as a business investment or as legalized bribery. But they are certainly not expressions of free speech. Indeed, the ban on contributions to campaigns by corporations was shepherded through by Teddy Roosevelt in 1907. That ban is still in place, and soft money, far from endangering free speech, is a giant loophole that has effectively abrogated the law.
The other ruse that becomes impossible to sustain is the "just folks'' spin -- the nonsense that these are average Americans participating in the political process. This stretches the truth when George W. Bush and Al Gore use it to explain away the millions of dollars they're raising, but it is laughable as a defense of soft money. "We've now got nearly 80,000 Americans who have said we want George W. to be the president,'' said Bush of his fund-raising prowess. "It's a huge groundswell.'' Only if you consider donations from three-hundredths of 1 percent of the total population a "groundswell.''
The true groundswell is for reform. According to recent polls, three-fourths of
Americans support overhauling the campaign finance system. But the big-bucks
binge continues to intoxicate the Senate. It's time for an intervention -- even if it
means dragging the Republican leadership kicking and screaming off to donor
09/21/99: The machine to beat the machine