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Campaign Finance: The Sequel | The Nation

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Campaign Finance: The Sequel

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Americans who thought the heavy lifting of campaign finance reform was finished with the passage of the McCain-Feingold bill were quickly disabused of that notion by George Bush. No one expected Bush to sign the ban on soft-money campaign contributions to political parties with any more enthusiasm than a ninth grader showing up for detention. With the Enron Corporation's "soft money" contributions so much in the limelight, Kenny-Boy Lay's favorite Republican had to sign the bill. But Bush did not take his punishment quietly. Rather, he was tossing spitballs with a vengeance--signing the bill without notifying Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold, jetting off to raise $4 million for Republican candidates and appointing a reform foe to the Federal Election Commission.

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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Indeed, with implementation of McCain-Feingold delayed until after November's elections and with Clinton prosecutor Kenneth Starr leading the legal fight to gut the first major campaign finance reform legislation in a generation, Karl Rove's political war room in the White House was signaling that neither the President nor his party expects to ever abide by the law. The same message came from the Democratic National Committee headquarters, where chairman Terry McAuliffe cashed a $7 million check from the creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as his aides combed the new law for loopholes. Even if the legal team being assembled to defend McCain-Feingold blocks Starr's attempt to impeach the legislation's core components--the ban on soft-money donations to political parties and limits on special-interest-group attack ads aired at election time--there is little doubt even among ardent adherents that McCain-Feingold is a small dam erected against a raging river of special-interest corruption.

The first job, says Feingold, is to keep the dam in place. But he admits that the defense of his legislation can't be the primary focus of the reform movement that has taken shape over the past decade. "People always said, 'The bill doesn't go far enough,' and they were right," says Feingold. "What the bill did was to help make campaign finance reform an issue." Passage of the bill, he adds, "created a feeling that people can change things. I am even more excited about that than the substance of the bill, because that sense of possibility is what makes real reform possible."

The sense of possibility was missing in 1993, when Feingold came to the Senate and proposed a bill to create a public financing system for federal Congressional elections. "It attracted precisely zero co-sponsors," the Wisconsin Democrat recalls. "It was obvious we had work to do." Feingold poured his energy into a more modest proposal he devised with maverick Republican McCain--one that lost even more of its teeth as compromises were made to attract additional Republican support--in part, he says, to make an increasingly cynical and frustrated American public believe anew in the prospect of reform.

The amorphous movement that came together to back McCain-Feingold involved the marriage of strange bedfellows--a coalition that included not just Al Gore and Ralph Nader but leveraged-buyout king Jerome Kohlberg and ice-cream king Ben Cohen. In Feingold's view, the most significant work was at the grassroots, where local newspapers, churches, student groups and ordinary citizens became engaged not just with the fight to pass one bill in Washington but with home-state struggles to achieve a lot more than a soft-money ban. "These people got involved because they thought we were starting something that would ultimately change our politics," says Feingold. "Now, we have to prove them right. That's the critical next step for the campaign finance reform movement."

The notion that passage of McCain-Feingold ought to be seen as a first step on the road to fundamental reform is echoed by activists. "Had McCain-Feingold failed, I think there would have been despair about whether anything could be achieved," says Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign, which backed the reform but criticized its sponsors for allowing a compromise that increased contribution limits. "For people who were involved in this fight, the idea that McCain-Feingold got through an extremely conservative House and was signed by a President who had vowed not to sign it created a sense that reform could not be denied." He adds, "Everyone knows this is not enough reform. But passing McCain-Feingold opens up so much debate space. Now, we can talk about what we really want to accomplish."

Fair enough. But how does a movement that does not speak with one voice and that often marches energetically in different directions take the next step? Predictably, there are plenty of proposals. With the support of the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Open Society Institute, the Ford Foundation, the Joyce Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, as well as a board led by Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Walter Cronkite, former Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor's Alliance for Better Campaigns is pushing action by the Federal Communications Commission or Congress requiring the broadcast industry to develop a television time bank for political candidates. To qualify, candidates would raise $50,000 in small donations. They would then get vouchers worth $250,000 from the time bank, which they could use to obtain free broadcast time. Political advertising as it is currently known would not be eliminated, nor would special-interest giving. But broadcast and cable companies would be required to fund the voucher program with a surcharge on all political advertising sold at prevailing rates.

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