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Will John McCain Save Campaign Finance Reform? | The Nation

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George Zornick

George Zornick

Action and dysfunction in the Beltway swamp. E-mail tips to george@thenation.com

Will John McCain Save Campaign Finance Reform?

The Hill published an intriguing scoop this morning—one that suggests campaign finance reform, all but left for dead in the 112th Congress, may suddenly have new life.

Senator John McCain is reportedly huddling with Democrats on the DISCLOSE Act, a major piece of campaign finance legislation that would require outside groups that spend more than $10,000 on electioneering to file a disclosure report with the Federal Elections Commission within twenty-four hours. The reports would have to detail the expenditures and also disclose any donors over $10,000.

The legislation, sponsored by Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, has forty-three Democratic co-sponsors in the Senate—but no Republicans have yet said they would support the bill, which would make it impossible to clear a GOP filibuster. McCain’s support would be monumental, since it could provide cover for several Republican moderates to support the legislation. “That would change everything,” one Democratic aide told The Hill. “That would breathe new life into it.”

There are several caveats here, however. It’s legitimate to wonder how serious McCain actually is. When the DISCLOSE Act passed the House in 2010 and arrived in the Senate, it failed to clear a filibuster by one vote—and McCain was among the Senators voting against ending debate. He publically attacked it as a “bailout to unions,” and his vociferous opposition was significant, since he co-sponsored the last serious Congressional attempt to improve campaign finance, the McCain-Feingold bill of 2003.

Sarah Dufendach, vice president for legislative affairs at Common Cause, sounded skeptical in an interview with The Hill, saying McCain “hasn’t shown any indication that he wants to be involved in this stuff anymore.”

McCain still believes the bill is too friendly to labor unions and signaled that his support is conditional on the bill's being “balanced and address[ing] the issue of union contributions as well as other outside contributions.”

Campaign finance reformers say that’s already the case. “The major argument made in the last Congress, and now being made again by the Chamber of Commerce and its allies, is that this bill is unfairly tilted to labor and against business,” Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 told me. “We strongly disagree with that.” (Democracy 21 joined thirty-seven other organizations this week, calling on the Senate to pass the DISCLOSE Act). 

A cynic’s view is that McCain is either trying to water down legislation he feels is inevitable anyhow or is not actually serious about getting the bill passed and is simply interested in floating the story, thus burnishing his maverick credentials with the media and redeeming some lost credibility on campaign finance issues. 

But his now-public support is still very notable, and if he does actually want to make campaign finance more transparent—and if his office actually does start negotiating language of the bill with Democrats—we might see serious campaign finance legislation much earlier than anyone expected.  

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