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).
MARGARET WARNER: Campaign finance reform, which has been lost in partisan wrangling for most of this congressional term, made it to the Senate floor today. We begin with this report by Kwame Holman.
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.
KWAME HOLMAN: It was one year ago during their joint appearance in New Hampshire that President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich promised to create a bipartisan commission to do what members of Congress have been unable to do for years, reform the campaign finance system and rein in the runaway cost of congressional campaigns.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: (June 11, 1995) I would love to have a bipartisan commission on it. That's our only chance to get anything passed. I accept.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH, Speaker of the House: Let's shake hands right here in front of everybody. How's that? Is that a pretty good deal?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I accept.
KWAME HOLMAN: Supporters of the idea argued a commission could find ways to limit candidates' fund-raising and spending that would be acceptable to both major political parties. The result, they said, would be a more level playing field for incumbents and their challengers. Office-holders wouldn't need to spend as much time as they do now raising money and public confidence would be restored in a Congress often viewed as beholden to special interests and big money contributors.
ROSS PEROT, United We Stand America: (1995) These special interests pragmatically give large sums to both parties without any ideological concern. It's just a function of having access to whoever is in office.
KWAME HOLMAN: However, the President and the Speaker never did agree on who should sit on such a commission, and the promise of campaign finance reform never materialized, despite their famous handshake. But last fall, a bipartisan group in Congress finally took charge of the issue.
SPOKESMAN: S. 1219, a bill to reform the financing of federal elections, and for other purposes.
KWAME HOLMAN: Senate Republican John McCain of Arizona and Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold introduced new campaign finance reform legislation, and with the help of newly-elected Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott succeeded in bringing the bill to the floor today.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN, (R) Arizona: 59 percent find this, of the American people, find it convincing. We need campaign finance reform to make politicians accountable to average voters, rather than special interests. Mr. President, the average voter in America thinks that they're not listened to here in Washington, D.C. I have to tell you from my 14 years' experience here in some cases they are right.
KWAME HOLMAN: The McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill would create a system in which candidates would participate voluntarily. It would set campaign spending limits based on the size of the voting age population in a candidate's state. It would require a candidate to raise at least 60 percent of campaign funds within the state, and it would limit campaign spending from a candidate's personal funds. Taxpayer-funded mass mailings used by congressional incumbents would be banned during an election year.
The bill also would place new limits on so-called “soft” money contributions to political parties or other organizations that were used to benefit individual candidates, and it would end the practice of combining, or bundling, contributions by special interest groups and outlaw all contributions by political action committees.
In exchange for their voluntary participation, candidates would get 30 minutes of free TV time, reduced rates to buy additional television advertising, and lower rates for mailing campaign literature. And a candidate would be given relaxed spending limits if his or her opponent refuses to participate in the voluntary system.
SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD, (D) Wisconsin: And that's all our bill's about, making sure on a voluntary basis that every qualified American has a fair chance to participate in the process. That's what we're trying to do.
KWAME HOLMAN: But opponents of the McCain-Feingold bill say it's unwanted, unworkable, and unconstitutional.
SEN. ROBERT BENNETT, (R) Utah: If in the name of campaign reform we set up the circumstance that limits the ability of a candidate to raise and spend his or her own money, therefore, limiting that candidate's ability to put forth his or her own positions, we weaken the ability of the candidate to stand up to a special interest.
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL, (R) Kentucky: Specifically in connection with the PAC discussion, most PAC's include an awful lot of Americans banding together to support the candidates of their choice. It is very, very hard for me to see how that is a bad thing for democracy.
KWAME HOLMAN: Congress already has taken some steps to police itself. Last year, the House and Senate passed bills limiting gifts from lobbyists. The question now is: Are members of Congress willing to change a system of campaign financing that clearly benefits their reelection?