TOPICS > Politics

Campaign Finance Reform

January 24, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: At today’s meeting, President Bush and Arizona Senator John McCain explored their areas of agreement and disagreement over the Senator’s latest bid to limit the influence of money in politics. At issue was the latest version of the McCain-Feingold bill, introduced on Monday, that would outlaw large, unlimited, and unregulated contributions to political parties.

These so-called soft money contributions have ballooned in recent years. According to the Federal Election Commission, the Republican and Democratic Parties raised $487 million in soft money for the 2000 election, nearly double the $263 million they raised for the ’96 election, and nearly five times the $86 million they raised for the ’92 campaign.

McCain’s bill would do the following: Ban all soft money contributions to parties from corporations, unions, and individuals; ban corporate and union-sponsored “issue ads” during the final 60 days of a campaign; and increase the total amount of regulated so-called “hard money” that individuals can give to candidates and to parties.

MARGARET WARNER: For perspective on the battle ahead, we turn to Scott Harshbarger, president of the pro-reform group Common Cause; Grover Norquist, president of the Americans for Tax Reform, a lobbying group that funds issue ads for and against candidates; Charles Kolb, the President of the Committee for Economic Development, a coalition of business executives who want an end to soft money donations; and John Samples, director of the CATO Institute’s Center for Representative Government.

Welcome, gentlemen. Scott Harshbarger, this meeting today, does this suggest and are there other indications that is the political landscape has changed on this issue?

SCOTT HARSHBARGER: Well, I think the ground has shifted dramatically in the area of reform. I think this meeting is just one example, a very positive step forward. The president who has tended to be viewed as opposed to reform willing to talk to Senator McCain who clearly is the warrior, if you will, on this issues. And the reasons are very simple. People can counts the numbers. The presidential campaign of John McCain was crucial in raising this issue and in getting public fervor about money in special interests and trying to break that stranglehold. The Senate was dramatically changed by the elections this fall. I mean, five pro-reform Senators won; five anti-reform Senators lost. The coalition that supports this is much broader. The Committee for Economic Development, business CEO’s involved along with public health groups, AARP, in addition to traditional reform groups join now increasing numbers of conservative if you will Republican Senators who appear to support some form of McCain-Feingold. So this is a very important first step, but it’s a real move in terms of the direction of the political support for reform in this year’s Congress.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see that kind of dramatic shift in the context in which this issue is being discussed?

JOHN SAMPLES: Not really, I mean, a poll a week ago done by the Wall Street Journal suggested that a majority of people thought that Senator McCain should not introduce his legislation at this point and should wait for President Bush to set his priorities. What we have seen I think is some changes in the campaign finance system itself. Democrats have gotten very good at raising soft money. Unions have used a lot of soft money to attack through television ads Republican candidates. It is not surprising that Senator McCain’s bill is aimed at those kinds of activities — it bans unions, for example, from funding those kinds of ads. That kind of incumbent protection is really something that America shouldn’t have I think.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Thad Cochran was – a conservative Republican from Mississippi — his switch on this issue to support the McCain bill and co-sponsor it was certainly taken as a signal of the change. How do you explain what happened and do you think it was that kind of signal?

CHARLES KOLB: Oh, I think definitely that was the case. I do think you can read it any other way, Margaret. But in addition to Senator Cochran you have the Secretary of the Treasury, Paul O’Neill who when he was in the private sector expressed his concerns about soft money. And I believe I’m right in saying he took his company out of the soft money game so you have a growing number of Republicans, Bill Kristol, for example, the Weekly Standard, has written editorials and op eds on this subject. I think more and more people are coming to the realization that it’s a very simple point behind all of this. It’s individuals who vote. It’s not corporations or labor unions. Their views should be heard. But why do have you to pay to play? And I think that is what got to Senator Cochran. He held these views sometime ago and I read a story that said he kind of held off. When he switched over and became a Senator people in the leadership came to him and said we do things a little bit differently here, back off. Those days are over.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you feel the forces, Grover Norquist, are sort of arrayed against those who don’t want to change the situation?

GROVER NORQUIST: I think a lot of people would like to change the present rules, the present rules were designed by the Democrats in the early 70’s designed to shut off fund-raising capabilities that they thought the Republicans had. Now we’re living under rules that the Democrats created, rules that they put together. And they’re losing elections; they weren’t interested in reform in ’93 and ’94 when they thought they were winning elections during President Clinton’s presidency. The Republicans have swept the governorships, the state legislatures, the House, the Senate and so Democrats want to change the rules because they are losing.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you not see any shift among Republicans too?

GROVER NORQUIST: Oh, sure, I think what Bush talked about today, we need to inforce the Beck Supreme Court decision; we need to make sure that the rules – the law of the land, which the Supreme Court is — is enforced. We have lived for eight years when Bill Clinton has refused to implement the Beck decision –.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s explain the Beck decision; the Beck decision being a decision that said unions had to at least give members a chance to opt out of letting their money being used for political purposes.

GROVER NORQUIST: Unions can only take money from union members forcibly to spend money on the maintenance and the negotiation of their contracts — not on politics, not on funding brothers in laws, not on organizing other labor unions other places. That means that 80 percent of labor union money needs to be given back to union workers if they want it. That was not enforced during the last eight years.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me go back to McCain-Feingold here. There are a number of sweeteners that he has added to this bill to make it more palatable hasn’t he both to Republicans and maybe to Democrats?

SCOTT HARSHBARGER: I think if you look at this bill as introduced, it’s very much the strong McCain- Feingold bill that appeared over a year ago — and the goal here to get the broader reform coalition to support this is to say this is a first step. The goal is to develop a political base reflecting the fact that the people in this country when given an opportunity to speak about this and understand these issues and their eyes stop glazing over about soft money, hard money, 527’s and this, but really talk about don’t we have to break the connection between money and politics in this country — in terms of public policy — support that. I think what my hope is that the broad coalition and the political power here will move this forward. It’s a balanced bill now. It’s balanced in terms it bans corporate and union soft money. It is a fair and responsible step forward and I think the sweetener simply is that he is willing to let amendments come on, have it debated. That’s what anybody — Remember the victory here was that up till now you thought you had to beat the filibusters.

MARGARET WARNER: So you had to have 60 votes

SCOTT HARSHBARGER: You had to have 60 votes. That went by very quietly last week sort of a pretty significant victory if you will from a Common Cause point of view. That was the big fight. Could we get enough votes? Now it’s going to be much more can you have a bill strong on the merits, defeat the poison pill amendments that are designed to kill it, not balance it, and make it stronger. That’s the challenge.

MARGARET WARNER: So what kind of amendments, John Samples, do you think would fly and make the bill stronger? I understand you are opposed to the bill, but as you analyze it here, versus the kind that would help the opponents actually sink it?

JOHN SAMPLES: Well, I think in general this is — I can think of amendments that I would want to see to keep the bill and bring it through. The only thing that I would see that would be better would be something that would deregulate system. But, you know, I think one of the questions here is we are talking here about something that’s really core First Amendment rights. This is something that shouldn’t be a matter of sweeteners or not. It’s not a matter of normal politics. The other thing I would say is I think there is good reason to think the Democrats are going to vote against this. Senator McCain has said he is worried about the Democrats voting for this. You have to remember, what this bill does on the ground is push probably $400 or $500 million away from the political parties and push it toward independent interest groups. Every Democratic Senator and member of Congress has to think. I’m going to have to run next time, and my party is going to have less money, and the independent groups that attack me are going to have more money. Do I really want that? They’re not going to want a way out, and that is where the amendment process comes in. A stronger Beck provision, one that covered all union members, I think would be one that President Bush would support and one —

CHARLES KOLB: That’s going to drive Democrats away from the bill. I think one of the issues that came up today in the discussion I understand between the president and Senator McCain is to possibly look for a way to find balance. The issue, Grover was raising this point, it’s a very valid point. If people are contributing to the political system which we think is a good thing, it needs to be voluntary and so if you do something to deal with the union issue and paycheck protection, I think it’s entirely appropriate to look at amendments that might also address the corporate side. Whether it’s a shareholder vote or whether making sure that contributions to individuals to PAC’s are voluntary. If you balance it that way, I do think you’ve got a much stronger chance. And I do think you can craft a reform bill that will comport with the First Amendment’s requirements.

SCOTT HARSHBARGER: No doubt that you can pass a bill. Right now this bill comports fully with the Supreme Court ruling, this is not the rulings maybe as interpreted by other groups, but the fact is the Supreme Court has allowed limiting contributions and banning contributions. They’ve always supported bans on corporate contributions to candidates and unions. The other side of Beck, the fact of the Beck bill, that discussion is important because if we want to deal with labor law changes, then that should go as a free standing bill. Deal with that issue, don’t try to argue that that is really important part of major campaign finance reform because this is a balanced bill that privies both sides.

GROVER NORQUIST: I understand why left wing groups want to write a bill that would allow labor unions to continue to take money from their workers without their permission and spend it on politics. That’s fine. The left is able to do that but it’s not fair to refer to that as reform. MARGARET WARNER: What about the idea that Mr. Kolb suggested, which is you have some parity there? Do you limit it for unions and limit it for corporations?

GROVER NORQUIST: Certainly, any corporation that takes money from people by force and spends it on politics should be forbidden. That is called theft. And I’m in favor of laws against that. What we don’t have is protection against labor unions doing that. That needs to be enforced, but there is another part of this, because reform is not what the left says it is. What we need to do is make sure that taxpayer money doesn’t get spent on politics. If you watch the attacks on Ashcroft and the attacks on Norton, what you see tens of millions of dollars, taxpayer money that Clinton and Al Gore gave out in grants to left wing groups that have come back in the way of politics. Step one is to defund and delink taxpayer money from politics.

MARGARET WARNER: But let’s come back to the bill.

SCOTT HARSHBARGER: That has nothing to do with campaign finance reform. Let’s be very clear. This is not an ideological battle.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you a question now. If President Bush, Scott Harshbarger, insists, though, on getting something tougher in the labor area, how much of an obstacle is that? Isn’t that a huge obstacle for McCain and the others to overcome?

SCOTT HARSHBARGER: This is always a question of what the total package looks like. It’s not one piece of the legislation versus another. This is a bill that already in the view of a broad coalition is balanced and has been addressed to meet a number of the competing concerns. Now as you go through the process, to talk now about what might be something that would defeat the bill or otherwise I think is not the way to go. The question is for the first time we really have momentum moving in favor of reform. People are thinking it may well pass, and it’s also just a first step. I’m not saying the ideological things aren’t relevant. What has changed here is this is a bipartisan group of Republicans and Democrats in the House and the Senate. This is an equal opportunity problem. It’s not just a Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative issue. It’s an issue about how reclaiming our democracy frankly.

MARGARET WARNER: Brief response.

JOHN SAMPLES: I think President Bush is going to veto this ultimately. I was talking to a top Republican election lawyer yesterday. He said, look, George W. Bush in some ways unlike his father is a real conservative. He recognizes what really is at stake here. He is not going to go along with this. Frankly it’s very clear already that there are enough votes in the Senate to sustain a veto by George W. Bush.

MARGARET WARNER: I’m sorry, gentlemen, we have to leave it there. We’ll meet for another discussion whether the President wants that kind of confrontation. But thank you all four very much.