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Will the McCain-Feingold Bill Become Law?

Aired March 29, 2001 - 7:30 p.m. ET


ROBERT NOVAK, HOST: Tonight: showdown over campaign finance reform in the Senate. Will it become law? Will it prove constitutional? Will it make any difference?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE.

On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Robert Novak.

In the CROSSFIRE: Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, and Republican Senator Robert Bennett from Utah.

NOVAK: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE. Advocates of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform today beat back what they called another poison pill intended to kill the bill. The defeated amendment would have required the Supreme Court to declare the whole act unconstitutional if it deemed just one part unconstitutional. And, yes, the Supreme Court may be the last line of defense for foes of McCain-Feingold.

Maybe tonight, probably later, the Senate will pass the bill. So will the House. And President Bush signals he will not veto it. So what will it really do? What will an end to soft money, higher limits on hard money, and restrictions on political ads by outside groups,do to American politics? Will there really be less money, or will it just be distributed differently? Will this open up elections, or protect incumbents?

Former secretary of labor, now a Brandeis University professor, Robert Reich is sitting in for Bill Press on the left. Bob?

ROBERT REICH, GUEST HOST: Bob, it's a good thing we are doing campaign finance reform.

And Senator Bennett, question for you: You have been a staunch opponent of campaign finance reform with regard to...


REICH: You still are?

BENNETT: Still am, but I'm losing.

REICH: With regard to McCain finance -- you say you're losing.


REICH: But I've got a question for you. Now, look at the first 100 days of the new George W. Bush administration. Isn't that the most telling argument anybody can have for why you need campaign finance reform? All of those interests -- gas and oil and timber and steel and credit card companies -- you name it. They got what they wanted because they invested in the George W. Bush campaign.

BENNETT: Well, if you want to spin it that way, that's fine. But the reality is that many interests who invested in the George W. Bush campaign are complaining to me that they have been ridden out by other interests who contributed to the George W. Bush campaign.

In fact, Bush is doing exactly what he said he would do in the campaign. Nobody should be surprised. He's standing on the principles he laid down, and those who agreed with the principles gave him money because they agreed with him. And those who didn't, and gave him money hoping they could influence him are being disappointed.

The fact is that McCain-Feingold is absolutely irrelevant to the first 100 days of George W. Bush. Has nothing whatever to do with it. And it will change the political landscape tremendously, but will not, in fact, change the amount of money in politics. It will simply redirect it.

REICH: Senator, let's take a look at that. I want to put up a chart here, if our chart people can put up that chart. And it shows what has happened to the amount of money in political campaigns. You see, over on the left -- I hope you can see it, Senator, I'll tell you what it is.

In 1992, $508 million in campaigns, and then in 1996, $881 million, and then in 2000 election cycle, $1.2 billion spent -- financed, raised, and spent on campaigns. This is out of control, isn't it, Senator?

BENNETT: Now, come on. You're a professor. You ought to be able to understand that gross numbers always are subject to some kind of breakdown. In 2000 you had a campaign in New Jersey, the most expensive market in the United States. You had a campaign in New York, a Senatorial campaign that raised millions and millions of dollars that normally wouldn't be. You go back to '96 when the states are all -- the Senate races are all in smaller states, you've got to break this down on a per-vote basis before you can make any kind of sweeping generalization.

And also, you have to recognize that you have a presidential year, and a campaign -- you're not just competing with your opponent, you're competing with the Budweiser frogs, you're competing with the dot-coms and all of their folks. And it isn't just that ads get more expensive, the clutter gets worse and you have to spend more to break through it.

So these kind of gross numbers, frankly, are nothing more than that. They're just gross, they don't really mean anything.

REICH: It is pretty gross. I'll agree with you.

NOVAK: Senator Dick Durbin, in the debate on the Senate floor today, the floor leader for the opposition to the McCain-Feingold bill, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, summarized in, I think, one pithy statement what a farce you're participating in it.

Now, let's listen to Senator McConnell.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), KENTUCKY: So what have we done? We haven't taken a penny of money out of politics. We have only taken the parties out of politics. Mutual assured destruction.

NOVAK: Now, Senator, I have been checking since I heard that speech, watching it on C-SPAN when it was delivered. And I have been checking with lobbyists since then, and they tell me that Mitch McConnell is exactly right -- that the money will be going from the same people in huge amounts, but it will be going to interest groups instead of going to the parties.

That's the truth, isn't it?

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: I hope it is not the truth, Bob, because I think people understand this. Bob Reich said earlier that the more money we seem to spend on campaigns, the fewer people vote. I think they have decided to boycott this process, and it really is not good for our democracy.

I have to agree with Mitch McConnell. I'm worried about the future of our political parties. They have extraordinary responsibilities to register voters and bring them out to vote, and I worry that the changes we're making may not leave enough capital, enough investment, for that to happen.

But I do believe, as McCain and Feingold do, that we have to get rid of this soft money. This has really become a scourge on the body politic. The American people have called for this basic reform, and I was glad to support it.

NOVAK: Well, you people have been talking about soft money so long, it's something like body lice, we've just got to get rid of it, but you haven't really answered my question, Senator. You said you "hoped" it wasn't correct, but isn't it a fact that when these interest groups have such huge interests in our massive federal government, interfering in every part of their life, they're going to find ways to try to influence it?

And they can influence it, not by giving it to political parties, but by giving it -- giving the money through various special interest groups. Isn't that a fact of life? How can that not happen?

DURBIN: Well, it could happen. And frankly, we've found in the last 20 years that the lawyers and accountants and the media consultants all sat down and figured out a way to get around the earlier laws. But I will have to tell you that an amendment that was added to McCain-Feingold by Senators Snowe and Jeffords, both Republicans, is going to help us really try to avoid the things you just described.

If those special interest groups try to put their money into these so-called "issued advocacy ads," these sham ads, they're going to have a tough time of it. Under this new law, we're frankly going to hold them accountable if they are electioneering and campaigning and trying to get away with the argument that they are just pushing for issues.

REICH: Senator Bennett, if I could pick up, just from where we were -- the arguments -- is it the argument that, in fact, you shouldn't try to control campaign finance because you can't control it -- isn't' that a fairly weak argument? I mean, the history of campaign finance controls is that you actually start controlling it, a legislation is passed, and for a number of years, it does seem to contain it, until the loopholes are exploited.

BENNETT: No, the key word in your sentence, Bob, is "seem." In fact, all the reforms do is drive the money underground and away from disclosure. The key to this whole situation is full disclosure, so that everybody knows what is going on, knows who is giving to whom, and knows it immediately. In today's world of the electronic revolution, you can you know within 48 hours who's giving what to whom.

Go back to the 2000 presidential election, and there's only one candidate who did that, only one candidate who was willing to disclose every single contribution he received on his Web site, within 48 hours. And it wasn't John McCain, and it wasn't Ralph Nader. It was George W. Bush, and the folks in the media gave him no credit for that. But that was the opening of politics.

Now, let me go back to...

REICH: I'm sorry, Senator, I apologize for interrupting you, but time is wasting, and I do want to -- I do want to ask a follow-up very quickly, and it's a political question.


REICH: And I don't understand it, frankly.

The Democrats and Republicans have pulled even on so-called "soft money." That's the unregulated money. That's what's going to be banned. Now, we have in this new bill, McCain-Feingold, we have a lifting of the cap on hard money, and that's going to benefit Republicans. So why is it that Republicans are not getting fully behind McCain-Feingold, and why are Democrats not opposing McCain- Feingold?

BENNETT: Well, there is a Democratic lawyer who's going around saying that McCain-Feingold will guarantee that the Democrats will not take control of the Senate in 2002. There's also a Republican consultant who goes around and says McCain-Feingold will guarantee that the Republicans will be in the minority for the next 25 years. So the fact is, nobody knows. And the soft money, once again, you're using aggregate figures without going into it. The reason the Democrats drew nearer to the Republicans in soft money in 2000 is that they had the presidency and we did not. And they had a president who was very aggressive in raising soft money.

Also, the thing you don't realize, if you haven't run a campaign, is that many times, the amount of money that shows up on reports is not the amount of money that makes the difference.

Now we come to the question of the unions, the get-out-the-vote effort, the registration efforts that the unions do. They do it all with soft money, and that's not banned in this bill, and it never gets reported.

So it doesn't get into your totals, but it's one of the reasons why the Republicans feel that cutting down on their ability to compete with this activity on the part of the union, and the union's activity is perfectly constitutional and perfectly proper, it just happens to be pro-Democratic. We want to have ways of counteracting it, and McCain-Feingold cuts back on our ability to counteract it. We don't really know what is going to happen, but the guess is -- the one thing we are sure of is what Senator McConnell said, both parts will be seriously weakened.

NOVAK: Senator Durbin, you mentioned that the Jeffords' -- or Snowe-Jeffords -- amendment to the bill, which sharply restricts the use of outside groups in talking about candidates 60 days before an election. You did mention the Wellstone amendment, which is adopted -- Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota -- which also affects outside groups and is much tougher than Snowe-Jeffords.

Now, every lawyer I talked to, senator, thinks the Supreme Court, since they can now pick and choose from the bill, there is no -- there is severability in the bill -- they can pick what they think is unconstitutional, will take -- if this becomes law -- will take these two amendments and toss them right out as unconstitutional. And so, with the parties castrated, you are going to have these outside groups with a free path. Can you deny that scenario?

DURBIN: I certainly can't. And I can tell you that the Supreme Court has disappointed me a lot in the last several months, and I gave a speech in Florida and brought up that very point. I sincerely hope that they rise above any efforts to try to impose their own view of reform and really look to the balance of this bill, which tries to eliminate not only soft money, but also the abuse of the process by these so-called "third party ads," issue ads, ads that, frankly, are designed to defeat or elect the candidate and somehow sneak under the radar.

But I voted for Wellstone. I think Paul Wellstone had a good amendment. I think it gave parity to the argument that everyone should be treated the same, candidates, parties and these issue ads.

NOVAK: I think we are going to have to take a break. And when we come back, we will ask the two senators whether they are passing a self-protection act for United States senators.

REICH: Shocked! Shocking that you would even suggest that.


REICH: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. I'm Robert Reich, sitting in on the left. Today, a big step toward campaign finance reform. It may actually be voted in tonight, at least in the Senate.

So are we finally on the way to cleaning up American politics, or are we on the way to stifling freedom of speech? With us tonight, Senator Robert Bennett, Republican of Utah and one of the Senate's leading opponents of McCain-Feingold; and Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, a staunch advocate of the reform bill -- Bob.

NOVAK: Senator Durbin, I don't know if you senators ever watch the debate as well as participating in it, but it's really a very unedifying spectacle, because what you're singing like an old opera singer is ...


... you're saying that, please fix this thing, so that nobody comes on television and says nasty things about me, says things about me that are critical. You know, I'm sure you are a student of history, being from -- a graduate of Georgetown University, and you surely must know that saying nasty things about your opponent is an American as apple pie.

DURBIN: I protect the right -- I think we should protect the right of every American when it comes to free speech, but we are saying, I think, Bob, that when you are going to get involved in this process, there are just a few basics here.

One is accountability. Who is paying for the ad? How are you spending your money? And you should disclose on the ad exactly who is sponsoring it. I don't think that's an outrage. We allow freedom of expression, we even allow freedom of deception, but we should, I think, require people to at least disclose their identity and where they're coming from.

Some of these groups don't tell anyone where they raise their money, and I, frankly, am very suspicious of it on both the right and the left.

NOVAK: Well, I don't quite understand why it is so horrible for the National Rifle Association in the last 60 days of Dick Durbin's re-election campaign in 2002 to say that Senator Durbin has a simply terrible record on protecting Second Amendment rights, which you do have -- a terrible record. Why is that so bad for the NRA to go on the air in the last 60 days and say that?

DURBIN: It's not bad. In fact, they probably will. I think they are saving up money to do it now.

NOVAK: But the Wellstone amendment prevents it! DURBIN: No, it doesn't at all. It basically says that they're going to have to disclose where their money comes from...

NOVAK: Why do they have to do that?

DURBIN: ... they're going to have to make some allocations, in terms of where they're putting their money. Why are they so afraid to tell us where the money is coming from? Whether it's on the right with the National Rifle Association or the left with Ralph Nader, I think full disclosure ought to be the norm.

REICH: Well, it should be the norm. Of course, it should be the norm, and the amendment -- the Wellstone amendment doesn't prevent that at all. But I have a question -- back to Senator Bennett -- look, aren't we missing a fundamental issue here? Here we are, talking about whether the money is going to actually go into the parties, where it's going to go, whether this is going to be airtight, whether it's going to work, how much is going to work -- don't we have a fundamental problem here with public confidence in our political system?

That is why we have campaign finance reform in the works right now! The public is demanding it. Don't you find out in Utah, senator, that the public says, this system stinks, it's rotten, it's organized bribery?

BENNETT: No, I don't find. I find the only people who feel as you do are the people who read "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post." And it comes primarily from the media.

What we are talking about here, if I can step away and once again try to be fundamental as you tried to be with your question, is government ways of regulating speech, government regulation of the way people can express themselves: you can say this, but you can't stay that, you can talk 60 days before, but you can't talk 60 day closer unless you do these things. You can do these things in this circumstance, you can't do these things in the other circumstance -- I think what we are talking here is a fundamental assault on the First Amendment...

REICH: But wait a minute, senator, the First Amendment doesn't pre-empt and doesn't trump all other values. I mean, we have -- we say pornography is not protected by the First Amendment, we say shouting "Fire" in a crowded theater is not protected by the First Amendment. Shouldn't we protect democracy?

BENNETT: Are you thinking that political speech is pornographic? Now, there are some who will say that it is, I'm sure...

REICH: Money in politics is not speech, is it?

BENNETT: Yes, it is. And the Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo said that, when they ruled that you could not put limits on spending, so...

REICH: So, corruption is form of speech. BENNETT: Corruption lies in the heart of the receiver, and not in the wallet of the giver. If a person is corrupt, he is going to stay corrupt. There are corrupt people in politics; there are corrupt people in academia; there are corrupt people in the media.

And there are people of integrity in all three of those areas. And the integrity or corruption is in-bred in terms of the way they are raised, things they have made commitments to, the choices they have made in their lives. It is not because, a friend gives me some money and says, let me help you in your campaign, the friend is not automatically corrupting me.

And if somebody comes to me and says, and this has happened, Senator, I'm giving you some money for the campaign, and I say thank you very much, and then he comes back after the campaign and he asks me to do something improper. I look him in the eye and I say that's improper and I can't do it. And I have done that to contributors, but if a I'm corrupt person, I say sure, you can have your pardon. It doesn't have to do with the money, it has to do with what's in the heart and mind of the individual.

NOVAK: Senator Durbin, Bob Reich brought up, in talking to Senator Bennett the idea that maybe this proposal is -- this bill is really more beneficial to Republicans than Democrats. And I tell you somebody who shares that view: a very astute politician by the name of John Breaux, U.S. Senator Democrat of Louisiana; let's listen to him:


SEN. JOHN BREAUX (D), LOUISIANA: It allows the one area where Republicans have the ability to raise twice as much money as Democrats to continue, and the one area where we are comparatively even in, to be eliminated.


NOVAK: Can you dispute that?

DURBIN: Not at all. In fact, it's almost counter intuitive that so many Democrats are supporting campaign finance reform. I really do think it creates money advantage for the Republicans. But we think the system is just inherently corrupt, and our party has been strongly in support of McCain-Feingold from the beginning, and I'm glad that a number of Republicans have joined us.

Our belief is, if the system is cleaned up, that the people will come to respect it, and they'll participate in it and they will vote.

NOVAK: Can I give an alternative reason why you're doing this? Because I don't think Democrats are that dumb. Because, you never really thought President Bush would sign this; you thought he'd veto it and then you would have a political victory.

REICH: You are so cynical.

DURBIN: It is cynical, and I'm shocked that Bob Novak would say something like that, but I will tell you this: I was an original co- sponsor of this, starting four years ago, and I have co-sponsored it every year in the belief that it's a good bill. I want to see it become law.

NOVAK: OK, Senator Dick Durbin, thank you very much. Senator Robert Bennett of Utah, thank you very much.

And the two Bobs here will be back with closing comments, to get the real reason why people don't vote.

REICH: Absolutely.


NOVAK: Robert, in the Senate in the last couple weeks and here tonight again, we heard the statement that people don't vote because they are disgusted by money in politics; that's a lot of nonsense. Half of adult Americans don't vote, because they don't think they have a stake in the government, they think they can do very well on their own and I rejoice in that, that the Americans have not succumb to the political illusion.

REICH: Bob, I think that you underestimate the amount of cynicism out there, the assumption that the game is rigged. A lot of Americans look at money and politics and they say, why should I get involved?

Now, McCain-Feingold will not solve the problem, but I think, when it's voted on tonight, and I hope it will be today or tomorrow, we will see a major stop toward getting our democracy back for the people.

NOVAK: See, but you want people be dependent on government, and I want them to be independent, and when they have a little contempt for government, it's a very good thing.

REICH: I want democracy to work, Bob. And that's the most important thing.

From the left, I'm Robert Reich. Good night from CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us next again time for another edition of CROSSFIRE!



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