CAMPAIGN FINANCING: SHAKING IT UP
JUNE 24, 1996
A year ago Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich shook hands, pledging to create a bi-partisan commission to reform campaign financing; it never materialized. Today in Congress, two Senators - John McCain (R-AZ) and Russ Feingold (D-WI) - took up the slack. Kwame Holman has a backgrounder, followed by a debate between Senators Feingold and Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
JUNE 28: CAMPAIGN FINANCING REFORUM. Join Ellen Miller of the Center for Responsive Politics to discuss trends in changing election spending practices in an Online NewsHour Forum.
APRIL 15: NewsHour coverage of "soft" money contributions.
APRIL 10: NewsHour coverage of complaints against organized labor for millions of dollars in campaign spending.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, the perspectives of two key players in this Senate debate: Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin is one of the primary sponsors of the campaign finance reform bill. Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is one of the bill's principal opponents. Welcome, gentlemen. Sen. Feingold, how would--what difference would it make in the way politics is practiced in this country if this bill became law?
SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD, (D) Wisconsin: Well, I think it'd make a big difference for two reasons. First of all, it makes sure that far more people have an opportunity to participate if they voluntarily limit their spending. It wouldn't have to be a multi-millionaire or somebody who's already well connected in Washington in order to participate in a Senate election because you'd get some of the benefits of the bill.
The other thing, this bill is the toughest limits on soft money, the real abuse of the system that have ever been put into a U.S. Senate or House bill. It says you can't go through the back door to violate the limits that have been set up in the early 1970's. And I think the combination of the voluntary limitations and the ban on soft money in a lot of places makes the difference between whether the average citizen can participate or not. And it's very important in a time of all this public cynicism that we do something about the money race in politics.
MARGARET WARNER: And just to explain what soft money is, these are these large contributions, usually made by companies or unions or sometimes individuals to parties which have had no limits on them, is that right?
SEN. FEINGOLD: Individuals now can only give $1,000 directly of hard money or PACs only $5,000 of hard money, but under this--under the abuse in soft money, they're able to give any amount basically through the back door. This would crack down on that way of doing it.
MARGARET WARNER: Sen. McConnell, what do you think the practical effect of this bill would be?
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL, (R) Kentucky: Well, I think the practical effect of it is it would dramatically push Americans out of the political process, putting restrictions on Political Action Committees means that Americans can't band together, pool their resources, and support the candidates of their choice. The bill has an adverse impact on political parties, the one institution in America that will always support a challenger. My colleague and friend, Russ Feingold, is talking about soft money, and you were talking about soft money, but you only talked about party soft money. What about union soft money? It does nothing to impact that.
The truth of the matter is that under the First Amendment to the Constitution, people are free to express themselves and the Supreme Court has said that campaign spending is speech, and, therefore, cannot be sort of doled out in equal amounts that the government decides is desirable. And this bill, in addition to pushing people out of the political process by preventing them banding together to support candidates, also blatantly violates the First Amendment. That's not me saying that. That's the American Civil Liberties Union saying that, and it's the vast majority of the constitutional scholars across the country who've taken a look at this bill.
SEN. FEINGOLD: Of course, the bill does nothing of the kind. Otherwise, we would be putting ourselves in a situation where our efforts would be nullified by the Supreme Court. The difference between what my friend, Sen. McConnell, is talking about and what our bill does is that we have voluntary limits. That's the difference. It's true that Buckley Vs. Valejo, the decision of 20 years ago, struck down mandatory spending limits, but all this bill does is say that if you want the benefits of the bill, you have to abide by the limits. A candidate could still spend 10 million, 20 million, 30 million. There's nothing this bill does to people today that they can't do already. They can continue the process.
MARGARET WARNER: Sen. McConnell, let's look at that. Since this bill is so complicated, I hope to break it up a little bit into different groups--different issues here. Let's take the voluntary campaign spending limits.
SEN. McCONNELL: Right.
MARGARET WARNER: Tell me, what is your basic problem with that, that this candidate makes a bargain in which he accepts certain limits in return for free TV time and so on?
SEN. McCONNELL: Well, it's not very voluntary if as a result of your refusal to comply with the government's request that you not speak too much your television ends up costing you twice as much as the other guy. I wouldn't call that very voluntary. I mean, in other words, if you say I won't speak too much in my campaign, the government says whether we're going to make the broadcasting industry sell you time at one half the charge. I wouldn't call that very voluntary, and that's what the American Civil Liberties Union finds unconstitutional about the bill. In other words, you're penalized if you don't agree with the government mandate not to speak beyond a certain government prescribed amount.
SEN. FEINGOLD: Well, there is no government prescription, and, in fact, it's inaccurate to suggest that somehow this bill makes people pay more than they already pay. Candidates will pay exactly what they pay now. It's only if they comply with the bill, if they agree with the limits, that they get an incentive to do so. But there is no change in terms of what the current rate is. Currently, the law says that a candidate is to be given the lowest commercial rate, and even the candidate who doesn't comply with the good provisions of this bill would still get that. They're not going to be charged any more than they are now.
MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Feingold, let me just clarify this. I do gather that under this bill the total amount you could spend would be set based on the population of your state.
SEN. FEINGOLD: That's correct.
MARGARET WARNER: So there would be, if you accepted this, you would have limits, would you not?
SEN. FEINGOLD: Yes. Sen. McConnell argued that it would somehow cost you more than it does now. And that's not the case. You can still do exactly the campaign you do today. It's just that the person who does agree to limit their spending would get some benefit, and that would be to reduce television time and to reduce postal rates. It just gives people who aren't multi-millionaires and can't throw $5 million on the table a little chance to compete. Anyone can do what they do now.
SEN. McCONNELL: Let me tell you what it does do, Margaret. What it does do is ask private industry, the broadcasting industry, to subsidize political campaigns in addition to that. The direct marketing industry--by the way, the postmaster general came out against the bill today because they know that providing the postal subsidy means they have to raise the postal rates for everybody in the country. So instead of taking the money directly out of the treasury.
What the bill seeks to do is to hide the public funding by pushing the subsidy onto the broadcasting industry and the direct marketing industry, which then in turn passes along to the other advertisers in the case of the broadcasting industry or the other postal rate payers in the case of direct marketing. So there's nothing free about this.
SEN. FEINGOLD: Actually, what the bill does, this bill, not the one that Sen. McConnell is talking about, is seek to have a ban on franking by members of the House and Senate during an election year and use the money saved from that to pay for the reduced postal rates for those who comply. So we do have a plan to pay for it, and it does involve an appropriate transfer of funds within the federal government.
MARGARET WARNER: Let's look at one other provision of this bill. And, Sen. Feingold, tell me your reason for including this. It would bar a wealthy person who was running from the Senate or the House if he wanted to be part of this system from spending more than I think is it $250,000 of his own money, what's the rationale for that?
SEN. FEINGOLD: There has been an enormous growth in a new phenomenon, which is that of people with enormous wealth trying to, in effect, purchase Senate seats. In fact, the major political parties now seem to prefer recruiting candidates who are very, very wealthy because it makes life easier for them. Again, it's voluntary. All it says is if you limit your spending to less than $1/4 million of your own money, which isn't even relevant to most of us, then you get the benefits of the bill. If you don't want to, if you want to spend your $10 million, despite what the opponents say, you can still spend your $10 million. It just means your opponent might have something of a fair chance to win, despite all your wealth.
MARGARET WARNER: Sen. McConnell, what's your view of that provision?
SEN. McCONNELL: Let me say, I don't think anybody's particularly happy about the fact that under the First Amendment rich people have advantages. Frankly, they have all kinds of advantages, and the Supreme Court said you can't, the government cannot constitutionally tell an individual how to spend his money speaking. The good news is that the vast number of these people who try to buy public office fail. The two most lavishly funded campaigns in 1994, one self-funded, the Huffington campaign in California, Huffington was defeated.
The other lavishly funded campaign didn't come from the candidate's own resources, but he had a lot of supporters, and that was Oliver North in Virginia, and he lost. So it's pretty clear here that this practice of occasionally people of great wealth spending a lot of money on campaigns is, is attempted but doesn't always work, and even if it did, the Supreme Court has been quite clear that it's impermissible for the government to tell an individual how much speech they can engage in, in the political process.
MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Feingold--
SEN. FEINGOLD: Clearly, the results of these campaigns show something very different than what Sen. McConnell has suggested. Anyone who takes a look at the economic status of the members of the U.S. Senate, it sure doesn't look like Main Street America. The vast majority of members, excellent members, are very wealthy people. And we have very few people who know what it is to try to make ends meet, what--
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask--
SEN. FEINGOLD: --it's like to make a mortgage payment. This bill would make it possible for the average citizen to participate and make the Senate more representative of the American people.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Let me ask--let's cover two other things, if we have time. One is that there is a provision that bans all PAC money to candidates. Now you heard Sen. McConnell say that he thinks that's unconstitutional. What is your rationale for that provision?
SEN. FEINGOLD: He may be right that that particular provision could be found unconstitutional. And that's why we have a back-up provision, the only one in the bill, that says that if the PAC ban is found unconstitutional, candidates to comply with the bill have to raise less than 20 percent of their money from PAC's, and by the way, Sen. McConnell voted for a provision two years ago that did exactly that. He voted for a PAC ban with a back-up provision, the Pressler amendment, so I assume that his arguments don't relate to our particular provision.
MARGARET WARNER: Sen. McConnell.
SEN. McCONNELL: Yeah. I might say, Margaret, I voted for that as part of a larger measure. I didn't think then and don't think now that it's constitutional. And as a matter of fact, most of the supporters of Russ's bill don't believe it's constitutional, so it shouldn't be in there. You can't constitutionally keep people from banding together to support candidates of their choice. Let me just say quickly the National Education Association, a very liberal group which today came out against this bill, wrote me and said that their average contributor gives them $6. In what way, is that bad for democracy?
MARGARET WARNER: All right. What about the prospects for this vote tomorrow? You have a vote that's going to be held on limiting debate. Sen. Feingold, do you think you have the 60 votes to override that?
SEN. FEINGOLD: I think it's going to be--I think it's going to be difficult. This is a rather high barrier we needed to agree to. Usually when we bring up a bill in the U.S. Senate, you have a debate for a while, bring up amendments, and then somebody tries to break the filibuster. Here we have been required in order to get the bill up before the Senate and the American people to get 60 votes right away. I think we'll have a majority. I think we've got a shot at 60 votes when people realize that this is "the" first bipartisan campaign finance reform bill in 10 years, and the vote tomorrow is "the" vote on campaign finance reform for the whole 104th Congress.
MARGARET WARNER: Sen. McConnell, why not just an up and down vote on the bill, rather than a filibuster, and then you could get 60?
SEN. McCONNELL: Well, the Democratic minority has been requiring 60 votes on virtually every bill. They shouldn't be offended by the requirement of 60 on this. The good news is the First Amendment will be secure after tomorrow. This unfortunate measure will not become law, and all of the people in America who have currently the right to participate in the political process will still have that right the day after tomorrow.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think--
SEN. FEINGOLD: And most Americans will be excluded from the process because if we lose tomorrow, which I'm not sure we will, the vast majority of Americans can't even think about plunking down that kind of money and participating in this process because the right has been effectively taken away from them by the incredible increase in the cost of campaign.
MARGARET WARNER: But, Sen. Feingold, if you lose this vote tomorrow, will you win an issue for November? Do you think the voters care?
SEN. FEINGOLD: This is--this is a bipartisan effort. Sen. John McCain, a conservative from Arizona, is the lead author. I did not engage in this, nor do I engage in this for November. I am interested in campaign finance reform, and I'd be happy to give up any political advantage just to get this through. This is genuinely what I hope will happen.
MARGARET WARNER: And Sen. McConnell, what do you think will be the political fallout if you succeed tomorrow?
SEN. McCONNELL: I think absolutely none. We had an all-night filibuster to kill a bill similar to this in 1994, and five weeks later, my party won the biggest congressional mandate of this century for our side. A recent Lance Torrance poll indicated that one out of a thousand people thought this was an important issue. The 999 were correct. This would be an important issue only if we succeeded in taking away people's rights to participate in the political process, and I'm quite confident we're not going to do that.
SEN. FEINGOLD: And that's precisely the argument we heard when we tried to ban gifts in the Congress. The Senator said all week that nobody cared about it, it wasn't an important issue, but when the votes came, when the decision was made, the Senators voted to stop the gifts. And I hope the same thing happens on campaign financing.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, thank you both very much.
SEN. McCONNELL: Thank you.
SEN. FEINGOLD: Thank you.