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.
“Nonprofit groups are the only voices that speak out on tough issues in an era when pollsters have convinced many politicians to avoid taking tough stands,” explained John Pomeranz, nonprofit advocacy counsel for the Alliance. “Choice, civil rights, gun safety–these and other issues are too hot for politicians to handle. Silence the independent advocates and you choke off political debate.”
Those are powerful indictments rooted in reasonable fears. And there are plenty of additional areas of concern, including provisions that essentially protect incumbents from self-financing challengers and “reforms” that in effect encourage special-interest groups to “bundle” more of their contributions into ever-larger election-season payoffs to pliant pols.
While the argument can be made that the flaws in McCain-Feingold create a half-a-loaf illusion of reform that ultimately will leave Americans hungrier than ever for healthy politics, Public Citizen’s Joan Claybrook, one of Washington’s savviest and most experienced reformers, warns against that position.
“This hard-fought legislation takes three giant steps forward in campaign finance reform,” explains Claybrook. “It will ban soft money, stop corporate and union financing of sham ‘issue ads’ and require broadcasters to lower the cost of candidate and party ads. These reforms will help the American people recapture their government.”
Claybrook agrees that the doubling of the $1,000 limit for “hard-money” contributions is a “major step backward.” “It will fuel, not lessen, candidates’ race for big money and discourage people from challenging incumbents,” says Claybrook. And she predicts that the new limit, combined with other hard-money hikes in the legislation, means that McCain-Feingold as it currently exists would bring more than $200 million in additional large “hard-money” donations into political campaigns. “With almost half the cost of these campaigns already paid by $1,000-plus donors, this is not good news for the average American,” says Claybrook.
Rightly, Claybrook says the real heroes of the campaign-finance reform fight were US Senators Paul Wellstone and Tom Harkin and the handful of other liberal Democrats who objected to the contribution limit increases as a radically wrong turn. (Listen during the eventual House debate for even louder objections from US Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., who calls the contribution limit increase “a cruel insult” to poor and working-class Americans who are already denied an equal voice in the political process.)
Yet, like Wellstone, Harkin and other progressive Democrats in the Senate, Claybrook remains on board for McCain-Feingold. “Despite this cost,” she says, referring to the increased limits, “the bill on the whole is progressive. It will outlaw the biggest contributions from special interests–soft money that goes to national parties, state parties and interest groups to influence federal elections–which added up to as much as $750 million in the 2000 election.”
Is it the bill Claybrook would write? No. But she says, with the rough mix of enthusiasm and disappointment that legislative battles so frequently inspire: “This legislation is a necessary first step toward fully reforming our campaign finance system…. We are achingly near enacting the most important campaign finance legislation in twenty-five years and closing, at long last, the loophole that has made a mockery of existing campaign law.”