The emerging fight over the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, which Senator John McCain has promised to bring up right after George W. Bush’s installation as President, has little, if anything, to do with real reform. Rather, this is primarily an intraparty scrap over who will define the early days of Bush’s term–Bush and Senate Republican leaders or the maverick McCain with Democrats in tow–and who will determine the new parameters of “bipartisanship.” McCain needs sixty votes to stop the traditional filibuster by Republican leaders Trent Lott and Mitch McConnell, and with the turnover in the Senate, the Democratic gain of four seats and the conversion of Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran to the cause, McCain may now have them. But the Republicans may well try, with the witting or unwitting help of a few Democrats, to pass a toad and call it a prince.
The McCain-Feingold bill would do some worthwhile things. It would end the flow of unregulated soft money into national party coffers, codify the Supreme Court’s Beck decision pertaining to the use of union dues for political purposes (which organized labor accepts, since it affects only a small number of nonunion members–those who pay dues for certain services and will be allowed to opt out of paying the portion spent on politics) and would possibly include a friendly provision offered by moderate Republicans to restrict how corporations and unions can spend money on political ads aired during the final months of election campaigns. Some Republicans may favor the bill because the Democratic Party is now almost even in the soft-money race. But nothing in it would end the money chase that keeps many good people from running for office; nor would it put a real dent in the process of influence-peddling that defines day-to-day life in Washington. Even at an estimated $457 million in 2000, soft money, the subject of so many New York Times editorials, amounted to only about 16 percent of the roughly $3 billion raised for this year’s national auctions–ahem–elections. That’s a big jump over the $265 million in soft money raised in 1996 but not much of a change compared with the $2.2 billion raised overall that year.
Feingold is a decent man who courageously called on his own party last summer at its Los Angeles convention to stop unilaterally the outrageous fundraising that goes on at those events. He understands the limits of his bill and is on record firmly supporting full public financing of campaigns, as is now done in Clean Elections states like Maine, Arizona, Vermont and (starting this spring) Massachusetts. McCain, on the other hand, is an excitable right-winger who has ridden the finance issue to unexpected stature. He’s a far from reliable ally of reform groups, who are hungry to make some headway against the growing corruption of the electoral process by big money. And there lies the danger.
In order to pass a bill that Bush might sign, McCain has signaled that he may accept, in exchange for a soft-money ban, amendments that would allow an increase, possibly even a tripling, of the limits on hard money an individual may donate. Lots of incumbents–Democrats and Republicans alike–secretly like this devil’s bargain, because they think it would make it easier to raise the hard dollars they so desperately need for their campaigns. They also argue, irrelevantly, that inflation has reduced the value of a $1,000 contribution, the limit set in 1974, to $300. The Supreme Court disposed of this argument a year ago, in Nixon v. Shrink, when it upheld even lower limits as a way to prevent electoral corruption, pointedly stating that “the dictates of the First Amendment are not mere functions of the Consumer Price Index.”
An increase in the hard-money limits would certainly encourage “buy-partisanship”–the process by which wealthy donors buy one party and get the other free. Fewer than 121,000 people gave $1,000 or more to a winning federal candidate in the 2000 elections, less than 0.05 percent of the population. Tripling the amount they could give would further empower this narrow slice of America, which is disproportionately wealthy, white and male. It could also increase the gap between the business and labor contributions to a whopping billion dollars. Two leading reform groups, Public Campaign and US PIRG, are against any such trade-off, but others, like the business-driven Committee for Economic Development, are for it, with Common Cause somewhere in between. Labor and civil rights groups, their attention focused on Bush’s Cabinet nominees, should take heed. The passage of a straightforward soft-money ban would be a good thing–and we’d like to see Congress look seriously at the Clean Election reforms taking root in the states. But this new Congress may try to pass a bad bill, call it reform and hope no one hears the protests.