TIME: The Wake-Up Call (2/3/97)
What's Legal And Not In Non-U.S. Citizen Donations
Amid the growing flap over questionable Democratic fund-raising, President Bill Clinton stepped up his calls for campaign finance reform, threatening to hold Congress in session this fall if lawmakers failed to take it up.
Surprise! Though congressional action on campaign reform has generally been as likely as snow flurries in hell, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott quickly scheduled debate for Sept. 26 on the president's favored proposal, the McCain-Feingold bill.
By Oct. 8, the Senate's effort had stalled in the face of two competing filibusters, one from Democrats offended by a GOP amendment, and another from Republicans intent on killing the entire bill. "Campaign finance reform is not going to pass this year," Lott declared.
What constitutes reform?
Unsurprisingly, most Republicans and Democrats have very different ideas for campaign reform.
At the heart of McCain-Feingold is a ban on so-called "soft money," unrestricted donations to the parties which, ostensibly, are for party-building activities only, and not for specific campaigns. In practice, both parties have used those funds to pay for massive advertising campaigns that clearly benefit specific candidates. Democrats say it has fueled a money chase that favors wealthy special interests over average citizens, while causing some of the fund-raising excesses revealed over the last year.
Republicans, who have been more successful than Democrats at raising soft money, claim just the opposite. Indeed, many GOP lawmakers -- most prominently, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky -- say that American campaigns are underfunded. Pointing out that the $1,000-per-candidate contribution limit has remained unchanged since the 1970s, they say contribution limits should be raised. Congress should stiffen disclosure requirements, they say, so voters can better know where a candidate's money comes from.
McCain-Feingold opponents also contend banning soft money would violate the First Amendment's freedom of speech guarantee. While constitutional scholars have differed on this point, it's clear that a soft-money ban would face a court challenge.
"We're going down the road here of bureaucratizing the Bill of Rights in a way which will be a disaster for this country," House Speaker Newt Gingrich has said.
Another vote this spring
A more tireless advocate for McCain-Feingold can't be found than Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who has wrested a commitment from Trent Lott to bring McCain-Feingold back to the Senate floor next spring for a renewed vote.
But its prospects remain murky at best. For any reform to pass, most observers believe the public must demand it. Though polls suggest Americans want some form of campaign reform, efforts to galvanize critical momentum appear to have fizzled.
McCain-Feingold supporters can't hope to leverage attention from Sen. Fred Thompson's fund-raising investigation, whose hearings have ended. Thompson, himself a McCain-Feingold supporter, followed his committee's most sensational week of testimony with an abrupt shift to proposals for reform, bringing in a parade of scholars, many of whom testified in favor of a soft-money ban.
Grassroots efforts haven't exactly taken off. A bipartisan group began a petition drive in March to gather a symbolic 1,776,000 signatures supporting McCain-Feingold. At the White House, Clinton launched a "crusade" for reform, headed by former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Republican Sen. Nancy Kassebaum-Baker of Kansas.
By next spring, fund-raising hearings may be a distant memory and campaign reform an even tougher sell as House incumbents gear up for the 1998 midterm elections.
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