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Beyond McCain-Feingold | The Nation

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Beyond McCain-Feingold

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The Senate's passage of McCain-Feingold was
welcome if only as a comeuppance to the Trent Lotts and Mitch
McConnells who had arrogantly defied popular sentiment by keeping the
bill under wraps for six years. There were several factors that made
the time right for McFein--including a strategic calculation by the
parties that they had reached soft-money parity--but paramount among
them was the prevailing climate of popular disgust with the sale of
the government to the highest bidder. For this the interest groups
that helped raise public consciousness with a steady flow of
statistics and gamy anecdotes about the American way of bribery and
extortion deserve great credit. Even George Bush has mumbled that he
would sign a campaign finance reform bill, which doesn't say much for
present legislative efforts but is a tribute to the critical mass
reached by pro-reform sentiment in the country.

The fact
that the Senate was even able to debate the bill seemed a freshet of
democracy released by a spring thaw. Once the threat of filibuster
and suppression by the leadership was lifted, a feisty debate bloomed
on the floor. During the colloquy ending in the 60-40 rejection of
one "compromise" that would have repealed a 1907 law banning direct
contributions from corporations, some of the fiercest denunciations
of corporate influence were heard since, well, 1907. Although Paul
Wellstone's amendment to allow states to apply public financing
systems to their own federal office races failed, it drew the support
of thirty-six senators and more than seventy major groups--labor,enviro, black, Latino, religious.

But let's not get carried
away. The bill that finally passed does little to alter a system
pushed to the brink of plutocracy by the obscene power of money (note
Bush's tax cut, incorporated in the budget bill the Senate next took
up, so blatantly weighted toward his wealthy supporters). And it bore
little resemblance to the measure John McCain and Russ Feingold
originally proposed, which promised a ban on unregulated soft money
and "bundling" (whereby givers maximize their influence by pooling
their contributions), limits on spending by candidates and political
action committees and provisions for free TV time.

The
struggle to win Republican co-sponsors cost the bill all these
reforms save the soft-money ban. But coming off a 2000 campaign that
saw an unregulated $500 million flush through the political process,
the passage of that ban was a meaningful achievement. Not nearly so
meaningful, however, as it would have been in combination with the
original McCain-Feingold reforms, and even less meaningful after a
final round of compromises doubled "hard money" contribution limits
for individuals from $1,000 to $2,000, increased the amount
individuals can donate to candidates and parties during an election
cycle from $25,000 to $37,500 and limited communication between
advocacy groups and campaigns so much that the bill could be read to
restrict legitimate public-interest lobbying.

These
"poison pills" proved too much to swallow for former McCain-Feingold
backers at Public Campaign, the US Public Interest Research Group and
the Alliance for Justice. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr.
complained, "When you talk to people I represent about campaign
finance reform, the first thing that comes to mind is not doubling
the amount wealthy donors can give to campaigns."

Jackson
and others can raise questions about the compromises that warped the
Senate bill when the House finally debates its version of McFein, but
they'll have a hard time making themselves heard in a body under the
iron thumb of Tom DeLay, poster boy for everything that's corrupt
about the current system. Also, Democratic leaders are having qualms,
fearing that the GOP advantage in hard-money raising may kill their
chances of financing a winning take-back-the-House-drive in '02. Even
if a bill passes, it could be defanged in conference committee,
giving Bush the innocuous bill he really wants to sign. And beyond
that stretch inevitable court challenges.

Reformers should
keep the heat on Congress with a new focus on the hard money system
that constitutes the vast bulk of all campaign dollars. They should
also understand that the real action will continue to be in the
states, where "clean money" bills, which contain the true and only
solution--full public financing of campaigns--are proliferating. Such
laws have already been adopted by Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts
(though statehouse Dems are shamefully trying to eviscerate the law)
and Vermont, and drives to pass them are now under way in
Connecticut, Minnesota, North Carolina and Wisconsin--and
municipalities like Austin, Texas. Americans are well aware that
their system is sick, and the Senate debate over McCain-Feingold has
left them more open than ever to the heroic remedies needed to cure
it.

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