US Senator Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democratic side of the McCain-Feingold juggernaut that is on the verge of winning Senate approval of the most significant campaign finance reform initiative in a quarter century, fashions himself as an heir to the progressive tradition of another Wisconsin senator, Robert M. La Follette.
That’s a dangerous connection to make, however, as La Follette set extremely high standards for senatorial success. Under attack in the first years of the twentieth century for refusing to compromise on an issue to which he had devoted years of legislative energy, La Follette replied that “half a loaf dulls the appetite for reform.”
After two weeks of the most spirited and unscripted debate the Senate has seen in more than a decade, a twisted and tweaked, amended and ameliorated McCain-Feingold bill is likely to pass the Senate Monday. It is not the same bill that Feingold and Arizona Republican John McCain imagined six years ago, when they debuted their political “Odd Couple” act. It is not the same bill that the duo introduced at the opening of the current Senate session. And, while the bill still contains a ban on unregulated “soft money” contributions to political parties–which have financed most of the worst excesses in recent political campaigns– Feingold himself admits that this bill is not the scouring blast of reform required to cleanse electoral machinery so clogged with dirty money that it long ago ceased to function to turn the wheels of democracy.
So is this the half loaf about which La Follette warned? Or, worse, is it a loaf laced with structural arsenic?
That depends on who is doing the analysis.
Public Campaign, the Washington-based advocacy group that has done effective grassroots organizing at the state and local levels for a variety of rational and workable campaign finance reforms, withdrew its support for McCain-Feingold after the Senate grafted on an amendment that doubled so-called “hard money” contribution limits for individuals from $1,000 per candidate per election to $2,000. That’s an entirely appropriate complaint, as is Public Campaign’s objection to the Senate’s approval of a move to raise the overall amount an individual contributor can deliver to federal candidates and parties over the course of a single election cycle from $50,000 to $75,000–a move that is somewhat like saying that, in order to assure that the water supply is safe, inspectors plan to up the limits for acceptable levels of known carcinogens. (Er, don’t tell George W. Bush about that idea.)
“By hiking hard money limits, the Senate has turned a campaign finance reform bill into campaign finance deform,” argues Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign. “While banning soft money is an important goal, the US Senate has set too high a price for this reform.”
Public Campaign isn’t the only group raising legitimate concerns about the form McCain-Feingold has taken as it passes through the Senate on the way to an as-yet-unscheduled House debate that could reshape the legislation even further. The Alliance for Justice, a coalition of progressive advocacy groups that has played a critical role in battling moves to make the federal courts more conservative, announced its opposition midway through the McCain-Feingold debate because of concerns about two features of the bill: a ban on pre-election broadcast advertising by nonprofit, issue-advocacy groups if such advertising mentions the name of specific candidates; and a provision that so severely limits communication between advocacy groups and campaigns that it could be read as preventing legitimate lobbying during campaign seasons.