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Update: Campaign Finance Reform

March 28, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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KWAME HOLMAN: The primary purpose of the McCain/Feingold campaign finance reform bill is to ban any future use of unregulated, unrestricted, soft money contributions by political parties. But for most of today, the Senate grappled with the issue of hard money, generally contributions individuals make directly to candidates. Currently, the most an individual may contribute is $1,000. But today, a majority of Senators was poised to raise that limit. The question was: By how much? Two competing proposals emerged, one from California Democrat Dianne Feinstein. Feinstein wanted to double the limit to $2,000.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Now the hard money contribution limits have been frozen now for 27 years. Now, what’s been the result? Is that result good or bad? Candidates, incumbents, and challengers have had to spend more and more time just raising money. What gets squeezed out in the process? Time with constituents or in the case of challengers, prospective constituents. I don’t think that’s good for our democracy.

KWAME HOLMAN: Tennessee Republican Fred Thompson called for a bigger increase.

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: We should not keep squeezing down the most legitimate, on- top-of-the-table, limited, fully disclosed part of our campaign system, which is the hard money system which is now at $1,000. It has not been in force — adjusted for inflation since 1974.

KWAME HOLMAN: Thompson wanted to raise the limit to $2,500.

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: It does nothing to weaken McCain/Feingold; it strengthens McCain/Feingold. If you want a bill that the Senate will pass, if you a bill that the House will pass, if you want a bill the President will sign, then you’ll assist in raising these hard money limits up to a decent point.

KWAME HOLMAN: Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell the leading Republican opponent of McCain/Feingold long has advocated an increase in hard money limits.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Don’t you think that the principles beneficiaries of an increase in the hard money distribution limits to candidates really will be challenged?

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: If you would yield for a moment, I had an interesting comment by a Senator yesterday. Well, at least I’ll only have to do half the number of fundraisers to raise the amount of money that’s required. And now the question is, is that good or bad? I happen to think it’s great.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: I do, too.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: The fewer fundraisers one has to do, the better.

KWAME HOLMAN: Democrat Feinstein’s call to increase hard money limits might seem unusual since her party traditionally has been out- raised by Republicans in the hard money arena. The GOP held nearly a two-to- one advantage in such contributions during the last election. Yet, Democrats acknowledged some increase would be necessary as a trade-off in order to attract enough support for the ban on soft money contributions.

SEN. RUSSELL FEINGOLD: My personal view is we shouldn’t even be increasing these limits at all. I don’t think we need to. But I realize that the majority of the body does believe that that is something that has to happen and I understand that it will happen.

KWAME HOLMAN: And to make it happen, Senators Feinstein and Thompson took their respective bills off the floor for several hours and worked on a compromise. By late this afternoon, they had succeeded.

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Subject to comments of my distinguished colleague from California, I would like to basically outline the highlights of the crucial elements of this modification. The individual limitations to candidates which now stands at $1,000 will be increased to $2,000 and indexed.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the agreement also allows individuals to give more money to the national political parties which in turn would be allowed to give an increased amount directly to candidates.

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: The contributions to national parties, which under current law is limited to $20,000 a year, will go to $25,000 a year and be indexed. We will double the amount that national parties… committees can give to candidates from $17,500 to $35,000 to be similarly indexed.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: There is the basis now where both sides can come together and vote for this bill. I, for one, happen to think the indexing is healthy. I think it gives us the opportunity that we don’t come back again and reopen the bill — that we live by the bill as it is finally adopted.

KWAME HOLMAN: Senators spent little time debating the compromise agreement.

SPOKESMAN: Turn back the rest of our time.

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: We return the rest of our time and ask for the ayes and yeas.

KWAME HOLMAN: They quickly moved to a vote and approved it overwhelmingly.