Debating Campaign Finance Reform
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KWAME HOLMAN: The call to achieve campaign finance reform now has enough voices in Congress that Senate leaders were convinced to set aside this week and next to talk about it, and almost nothing else.
SPOKESPERSON: The Senator from New Jersey, Mr. Torricelli.
KWAME HOLMAN: New Jersey Democrat Robert Torricelli was first to the Senate floor this morning, with a measure that would require broadcasters to sell air time to candidates and political parties at their lowest rates. Torricelli argued the soaring costs of buying airtime is one reason candidates need to raise more and more money.
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: Philadelphia and New York City, the two media networks which serve my state of New Jersey, the cost of some political ads increased 50% between labor day and election day. Television stations, recognizing that unlike an automobile manufacturer or soap manufacturer that can advertise anytime of the year, a candidate has no choice but to communicate with the voters in those weeks between Labor Day and election day; they have a captive market and they take full and unconscionable advantage.
KWAME HOLMAN: Torricelli also would bar TV stations from bumping political ads in favor of more lucrative ads like car commercials. However, opponents such as Oklahoma Republican Don Nickles warned the Senate would overstep its bounds by trying to legislate TV airtime.
SEN. DON NICKLES: We’re saying we want to have that rate for politicians in October and early November when maybe the demand is very great. The rates might be four times as much, three times as much. You’ve got the new shows on TV. I look at this– maybe it sounds kind of nice and somebody says “this is just really enforcing what the existing language is.” I say, “hogwash.” This amendment is worth millions, and everybody should know it. This amendment is worth millions to candidates.
KWAME HOLMAN: Nonetheless, there was wide bipartisan support for the measure, with 22 Republicans joining 48 Democrats to approve it. However, few Senators are willing to predict what kind of campaign finance reform may emerge at the end of two weeks of scheduled debate. There’s already been dramatic evidence of that uncertainty during just the first three days.
SPOKESMAN: I believe that’s acceptable.
KWAME HOLMAN: Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold are the architects of the primary campaign finance reform initiative. But the other 98 Senators are free to tweak, twist, refine, rewrite or even reinvent it if they so choose.
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: Madam President, I believe it is in order now for me to send an amendment to the desk.
KWAME HOLMAN: The contribution made by New Mexico Republican Pete Domenici on Monday was an attempt to level the playing field for candidates who face wealthy opponents willing to pour millions of their own dollars into a campaign. For instance, Republican Congressman bob franks couldn’t come close to matching the $60 million of personal funds Democrat Jon Corzine spent in their head-to-head race for a New Jersey Senate seat last year. Franks lost. Domenici suggested lifting current contribution limits and in some cases eliminating them for a candidate, depending on how much the wealthier opponent decides to spend.
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: It’s an equalizer amendment. It’s a fair-play amendment. It’s a “let’s be considerate of a candidate who isn’t rich” amendment.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Russ Feingold argued that would just add fuel to the central problem of runaway campaign spending.
SEN. RUSSELL FEINGOLD: I share the concerns, but we need to do this in a manner that doesn’t suddenly put together an act of modification that we don’t completely understand.
KWAME HOLMAN: Feingold urged the Domenici amendment be tabled, or put aside. And he continued to lobby them even as the vote got under way. Feingold managed to persuade several Democrats, including New Jersey multimillionaire Jon Corzine himself. Feingold changed the mind of Illinois’ Dick Durbin as well.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, let me tell you what happened. Russ Feingold came to me and said we’d like to talk to you about this amendment. I said for weeks now the two things I want to include in this relate to the multi-millionaire candidates and the cost of television. I said so it’s no surprise. But he said I’m open to this concept. But can we back off of the Domenici language and talk about how to modify it? I think John McCain said about the same on the Senate floor. It was based on that assertion by Russ Feingold that he could support it, that I did back off and say, all right, I went to Senator Domenici and said I can’t support you now but let’s keep trying.
KWAME HOLMAN: However, Feingold had no success changing the mind of Minnesota’s freshman Democrat Mark Dayton, also a millionaire.
SPOKESPERSON: Mr. Dayton? No.
SPOKESMAN: He didn’t feel comfortable with it, and that’s fine. We’re not going to get every Senator’s vote on every issue, and that’s fine.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Feingold ultimately prevailed. The move to table the Domenici amendment passed by three votes.
SPOKESMAN: The motion to table is agreed to.
KWAME HOLMAN: When Senators vote to table a matter, it’s usually the last they see of it. But supporters of the Domenici amendment took their idea off the floor and fine-tuned it.
SEN. MIKE DeWINE: We went back into the Republican cloakroom — Democrats and Republicans. In about a half hour to 35, 40 minutes, members of the Senate just went back and forth. We probably had, what? 10, 12 members of the Senate — and basically outlined for the staff where we could reach agreement and told the staff where we wanted to go. So it was something that does not occur, I don’t think, too often in the Senate, and that is that members actually got together and just thrashed the thing out directly. What can you accept? What can we accept? We got the broad parameters and then staff went out and after we went home and ate dinner, we continued to work.
KWAME HOLMAN: Domenici and his supporters returned the next morning with a rewritten amendment that would increase the $1,000 limit individuals are allowed to contribute to a candidate, depending on how much personal money the opponent decides to spend. It also would take into the account a state’s voting population in determining the limits.
SEN. MIKE DeWINE: Our population-based calculation allows the individual contribution limits increases to kick in sooner in states with smaller populations where candidates get, frankly, more bang for their buck. $500,000, for example, in a campaign in Wyoming goes a lot further and can buy a lot more television airtime and direct mail pieces than it can in Ohio or in California.
KWAME HOLMAN: And because the amendment does not eliminate spending limits, most Senators, Feingold and McCain included, said they could live with it.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I am pleased we worked it out, I am pleased that we are now ready to move forward as soon as the language comes over, and we can vote on this amendment and move on to other amendments.
KWAME HOLMAN: Senators have had a much easier time agreeing on what they don’t want included among their campaign finance reforms. Yesterday they rejected a proposal from Utah Republican Robert Bennett. He wanted to prohibit Political Action Committees, which direct hard money contributions to candidates, from using unregulated soft money to pay their operating expenses.
SPOKESMAN: Who seeks recognition?
KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate also rejected a suggestion by Oregon Republican Gordon Smith.
SEN. GORDON SMITH: My amendment simply prohibits Senate and House candidates from accepting campaign contributions from lobbyists when Congress is in session.
KWAME HOLMAN: A sizeable majority of Senators, however, sided with Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who thought Smith’s amendment might be unconstitutional.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: My concern is this: We have to clearly have a compelling governmental interest to override the first amendment rights of people to give money to candidates. They clearly have that right here. And we are clearly overriding it. The question is whether or not there is a sufficient governmental interest.
KWAME HOLMAN: Senators have been debating and voting on amendments at the rate of one every three hours. And along with their rapid pace of legislating, they’ve managed to keep the debate remarkably free of partisan attacks.
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Mr. President, I have been very pleased by the debates so far on this subject and frankly, somewhat surprised. The comity in the Senate has been excellent.
KWAME HOLMAN: And if there was any question about that, Senators Kennedy and Hatch provided an answer during an otherwise contentious debate over yet another amendment this afternoon.
SEN. ORRIN HATCH: That brought tears to my eyes, honest to goodness.