Posturing for the Campaign Finance Debate

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

March 16, 2001

The game about to open in the nation’s capital isn’t as old as baseball, but it’s just as traditional. The game is always played in two parts. First, campaign finance reform is killed. Then one party (usually the Democrats) contrives to blame the other party (usually the Republicans) for having killed it.

As the Senate prepares for next week’s campaign finance debate, the game promises to be more interesting than usual. A reform bill stands a real chance of passing, and the task of stopping it could fall to President Bush, as it once fell to his father before him.

Having learned the Washington game very well in a short period, the current President Bush is already tilting publicly toward a weak bill sponsored by Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. If a strong bill comes to him now and he vetoes it, Bush will be able to say: I was for reform, just not this reform.

Democrats, in the meantime, are very much on the hook. They’ve been able to vote for reform bills sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and count on Republicans led by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to filibuster the bills to death. Democrats could then heap ridicule on McConnell and his party.

But support for the McCain-Feingold bill has grown. If Senate Democrats hold firm, the bill could pick up 60 votes or more, foiling a filibuster. And so, suddenly, there are Democratic doubts, especially because Democrats did very well in 2000 raising the soft money McCain-Feingold would prohibit.

Sen. John Breaux, D-La., has already fallen off the McCain-Feingold train. Other Democrats threaten to do so. And the AFL-CIO, to which Democrats owe a huge debt, now argues that McCain-Feingold could unfairly impede organized labor’s political efforts.

Oddly, Democratic doubts might help pass the bill, since it’s harder to know now which party, if any, it would hurt most. Howard Opinsky, a former McCain operative advising the reform effort, says all the Democratic squawking undercuts McConnell’s argument that McCain-Feingold is a Democratic scheme to hurt Republican fundraising.

Reform Democrats such as Rep. Marty Meehan of Massachusetts make the opposite point.”Since when have Tom DeLay and Mitch McConnell and Trent Lott worked for Democratic interests?”he asks.”We’ve been losing since 1994. I don’t know how a minority party says this is a good system for us.”

Even supporters of McCain-Feingold acknowledge that one of the provisions to which labor and, as it happens, right-to-life groups object, it would sharply restrict”coordination”between candidates and outside groups during campaigns , is written too broadly. But that provision will be easily fixed, says Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who is a stalwart reformer.

More complicated is the ban on corporate and 1 labor sponsorship of what reformers call”phony issue ads”60 days before an election. In fact, the ads advocate the election or defeat of particular candidates.

Labor is reluctant to give up its ability to air such commercials.

Democrats and some Republicans worry that the prohibition doesn’t go far enough, since supposedly”independent” groups would still be able to flood the airwaves in the days before an election.

Some restrictions and disclosure requirements may ease this problem.

But in the end, the Democrats and labor have to decide whether it’s worth taking a risk to enact a ban on the unregulated”soft money”now flooding the political system.

Meehan sees the risk as small to non-existent, and some labor leaders are thus drifting back toward reform. He says the lesson of all the big business victories of late, on worker safety regulations, anti-labor executive orders, an anti-consumer bankruptcy bill, is that “it’s the little guy, the core Democratic voter, who’s being drowned out by soft money.”

Levin notes that as a standard part of fundraising, big donors are routinely granted meetings with the president and congressional committee chairs. Washington, he says, is now characterized by “the open sale of access.”Isn’t that what Republicans say the Marc Rich pardon was about?

That’s why this is not a fight about free speech. It’s a fight about whether money’s power will overwhelm the democratic system. Do Democrats want to find themselves on the wrong side of that one?

As for Republicans, those who have embraced the modest restrictions of the Hagel bill have given up the claim that any regulation of political money would violate the First Amendment. They’ve accepted the principle that money can corrupt. If they’re willing to go that far, shouldn’t they support a bill strong enough to end some of the corruption?