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Voter Anger Breeds Optimism On Campaign Finance

By Carroll J. Doherty
and Donna Cassata
CQ Staff Writers

campaign finance nav

Last June, after the defeat of the latest proposal to revamp the nation's campaign finance laws, Tennessee Republican Sen. Fred Thompson, former minority counsel for the Senate Watergate committee, reflected on what would have to occur for Congress to enact such legislation. "We'll have to wait until the next real good scandal to get anything done," he said.

An autumn's worth of newspaper stories detailing the questionable efforts of both parties to raise political cash -- from the Democratic fundraiser at a California Buddhist temple to the illegal corporate contributions made to Bob Dole's campaign -- turned a spotlight on a campaign financing system that seems to have collapsed.

But do the dubious dealings of former Democratic National Committee official John Huang and all of the other embarrassing revelations from the campaign qualify as "the next real good scandal"?

The answer to that question is likely to determine the fate of campaign finance legislation in the 105th Congress. Certainly, the bipartisan measure that failed last June -- cosponsored by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and Wisconsin Democrat Sen. Russell D. Feingold -- has been given a huge boost by the growing emphasis on money and politics.

That legislation would shut down the system of "soft money" that permits major corporations and labor unions to legally donate unlimited sums to party coffers. It would also eliminate contributions from political action committees (PACs) and provide incentives, such as cut-rate broadcast time, to candidates who accept voluntary spending limits.

President Bill Clinton, whose campaign was damaged by the steady drip of disclosures concerning efforts by the elusive Huang and others to solicit six-figure contributions in behalf of the Democratic Party, has made passage of the McCain-Feingold bill a top priority of his second term.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., have also pledged to try to craft a bipartisan bill, although they have not agreed on the specifics.

Advocates for overhauling the Watergate-era laws governing campaign finance believe they have their best opportunity in two decades to close loopholes in those laws. loopholes

"People said for years you need a scandal to get campaign finance reform," said Ann McBride, president of Common Cause, which supports public financing of campaigns. "This whole election has been a scandal."

But a sharp dispute has already broken out in Congress over which, if any, of the various money-related problems that surfaced in the campaign are scandalous. Equally important, the election has not softened the opposition of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and other GOP leaders to the McCain-Feingold bill.

While Feingold and McCain cite an urgent need to clamp down on PACs and soft money, which the two parties raised in record amounts in 1996, Republicans have trained their guns on the $35 million campaign by the AFL-CIO to defeat GOP candidates, which would not have been affected by the McCain-Feingold bill.

"A lot of that union money was dropped on my head," said Rep. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who was elected to the Senate to serve out the term of former Majority Leader Bob Dole.

Brownback was cosponsor of a bipartisan House bill that is nearly identical to McCain-Feingold. He plans to support the Senate bill only if it addresses the question of union contributions. That is a non-starter for Democrats, many of whom benefited from the union cash.

Outrage Or Cynicism

For years, attempts to revise the nation's campaign finance laws have dissolved into a predictable pattern of posturing and partisan bickering, as each party has struggled to seize the political high ground.

But the bottom line, according to Brownback, has remained the same. "The reason these proposals have failed is because they go to the core of members' political survival -- getting enough resources to get re-elected."

Meanwhile, the existing laws have become largely ineffective in limiting big contributions, as this year's furor over soft money underscored. The courts also have continued to enhance the ability of the political parties -- and independent entities like unions -- to plow unrestricted amounts of money into campaigns.

Feingold is confident that the pattern of futility can be broken next year, because of the growing popular revulsion with the process and Clinton's decision to stake his political capital in support of the bill. soft

On Nov. 5, voters in a number of states approved ballot initiatives aimed at imposing new restrictions on how candidates raise and spend money. That includes an initiative in Maine that provides some public funding for candidates who limit their contributions and expenditures.

Feingold asserts that the angry public mood reflected by those results will make it extremely difficult for lawmakers, especially new members, to oppose the cure for at least some of the system's ills. "Do new members want their first vote to be against a campaign finance bill?" Feingold asked.

Polls have repeatedly shown that the vast majority of people want the system cleaned up. But that issue ranks behind cutting the deficit and fighting crime among the public's priorities.

There also is evidence that, after repeated promises of reform have gone unfulfilled, public cynicism has increased about what can be achieved. "Call it appropriate skepticism," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which recently conducted a post-election poll of voters.

The poll showed that only 32 percent of those surveyed believed that the campaign finance system will be improved over the next four years, while 51 percent thought it would remain unchanged. The question of whether the campaign finance laws should be revamped wasn't asked, but 54 percent of those surveyed backed the creation of a select committee to investigate improper campaign contributions to Democrats.

Anecdotal evidence from this year's election suggests that campaign finance is not at the top of the voters' list of concerns. For instance, Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, an unapologetic opponent of the McCain-Feingold bill who led the filibuster that killed the measure, won re-election to a third term by his largest margin yet.

"There's never been any indication of a public outcry on this issue," asserted McConnell, who is expected to take over chairmanship of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which raises funds for GOP Senate candidates. "Not a single race has been decided on it."

New Math

Feingold and McCain agreed a month ago that regardless of the outcome of the election, they would introduce their bill on the first day of the 105th Congress. They are pushing for an early vote on the legislation, before the public attention focused on the issue begins to fade. mccain

And with Lott raising the possibility of hearings on the entire spectrum of campaign finance issues, they are concerned that the bill could get tied up for months. "If they (GOP leaders) don't move on it quickly, we'll just bring it up," McCain vowed. "There's got to be some limit. We've had lots and lots of hearings."

To help build support for the bill, the two senators agreed to add a provision limiting contributions to individuals who are eligible to vote. After the uproar over the huge contributions from non-U.S. citizens, who are already barred by law from donating to campaigns, and resident aliens, who are not, that is probably the least controversial element of the bill.

But even Feingold and McCain have broken ranks on the issue of union money. McCain wants to add language requiring labor unions to get a signed waiver from members before using dues for political purposes.

Feingold staunchly opposes the proposal. "We're certainly not going to allow folks to pick on unions," he said, indicating he may counter that with a provision to bar corporate contributions without the consent of shareholders.

With the retirement this year of 14 senators and the defeat of one incumbent -- Republican Larry Pressler of South Dakota -- both sides are assessing the impact of the new Senate lineup. For McCain and Feingold the magic number is six. That is the number by which they fell short of gaining the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture and break McConnell's filibuster.

McConnell predicts that the conservative leanings of several of the new GOP members will make it easier for him to block the bill. But Brownback, hardly a moderate, supports the bill, and Feingold insists that the desire for changing the system crosses ideological and partisan barriers. senate

Despite the bill's bipartisan sponsorship, however, the effort to break the filibuster was backed by all but one Democrat and opposed by all but eight Republicans.

Ultimately, how the 15 new senators vote will depend on the amount of pressure they receive. It could come down to whether Lott administers a test of loyalty for the GOP freshmen by demanding their opposition to the McCain-Feingold bill.

In June, Lott pulled out all the stops to kill the measure, warning committee chairmen that if they wanted leadership support they should vote against cloture.

Incremental Reform?

The situation is more fluid in the House, which is likely to let the Senate take the lead. There will be an effort to revise a bipartisan bill, sponsored by Republicans Linda Smith of Washington and Christopher Shays of Connecticut, and Democrat Martin T. Meehan of Massachusetts. The measure is similar to McCain and Feingold's.

But it is not clear whether that bill will receive the blessing of Gingrich and Gephardt, who met for preliminary discussions on the issue Nov. 14. It never even came to a vote in 1996, as Gingrich and Gephardt backed vastly different measures, both of which were defeated.

Since the election, Gingrich has joined the chorus of Republicans calling for more hearings, while Gephardt has expressed reservations over a total ban on PAC money, a key feature of the McCain-Feingold bill. Gephardt ranked second and Gingrich fourth among PAC fundraisers during the current election cycle, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Gephardt also suggested that a constitutional amendment may be needed to overturn the Supreme Court rulings that have made it impossible for Congress to impose mandatory spending limits on campaigns.

That idea has picked up the support of other prominent Democrats, most notably New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, who recently wrote an article in The New York Times in which he characterized the McCain-Feingold bill as an "incremental reform" that is "not radical enough to change the role of special-interest money in our political system."

Naturally, Feingold and McCain take umbrage at such criticism. While recognizing the significant obstacles their bill must overcome, they insist that the various alternatives to their bill now being floated - hearings, a scaled-back bill, a new bipartisan commission - would repesent a retreat. "A commission is the surest way to take the steam out," Feingold said. "A commission is a ruse. What we have here is a bird in hand."

© 1996, Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.

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