TOPICS > Politics

Setting Limits

March 20, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: And for more on the bill and its likely impact, we turn to two key Senate players in this seven-year struggle over campaign finance reform. Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, the bill’s co- author, as we just saw, and Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, its leading opponent.

Welcome, gentlemen. Senator Feingold, you have been fighting this fight for seven years. Why do you think it worked this year?

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: Well, as my friend and partner in this, John McCain, said a system where there are unlimited contributions has to lead to scandals. And that’s what exactly happened. We had scandals in the 1996 election. We had the presidential pardons, and now we have the specter of members of Congress having to deal with the Enron situation after many received contributions from Enron. It just became too much and I think members of Congress frankly became afraid of being part of this system.

And I think almost all of us knew it was very troubling. We can’t be asking people for a hundred thousand, five hundred thousand, and a million dollars and then go vote on their issues. So I think the weight of all those scandals finally took its toll and we were able to prevail.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator McConnell, you successfully held this off for nearly seven years. Do you agree with Senator Feingold in terms of what tipped the balance the other way this year?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Well, of course, it had already passed the Senate well before the Enron meltdown and of course soft money had about as much to do with Enron’s failure as Martha Stewart had to do with K-mart’s problems. The fact of the matter is, with all due respect to Russ and John McCain, who deserve a big round of applause for their success in passing this legislation, it will not keep members from raising soft money. The bill specifically permits members to go out and raise soft money not for political parties but for outside groups.

So I think the one thing you can safely say, Margaret, is there won’t be a penny less spent in the next election on political expression. Less will be spent by the parties, even more will be spent by outside groups.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Feingold, that has been the criticism that this won’t end… or it won’t really limit even the amount of money in politics, it will just channel it from new sources into new channels to repeat myself there, what about that? Is that a danger?

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: I don’t think it is. I think it’s just the opposite. I guarantee you, you won’t see the kind of money being spent on soft money that was in the last election. In the last election, the 2000 election, you had almost half a billion dollars that had been given directly to the political parties and coordinated with the political parties because it was legal. That’s the problem. You had the ability of candidates and parties to raise these huge checks, to push the members of Congress to ask for the money, and then coordinate with the political parties. What won’t be allowed anymore is exactly that. And we are going to prevent with clear language that will be put together by the FEC the kind of coordination that would make the soft money system reappear. So we’re not going to have the unlimited contributions, and I’m very confident that you’re going to see actually less money in these campaigns, less negative ads and more positive campaigning.

MARGARET WARNER: So are you saying, Senator Feingold, that you do think this will end or limit the spectacle that so many of you pointed to as at least giving the appearance of impropriety, or corruption, which is elected officials, federal officials, essentially selling their access to donors who gave big contributions?

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: We just made it a crime to do that. It was a legal a while ago – in fact, including today — to ask for half a million dollars, to send it to the Democratic/Republican Party and then they could spend it on your campaign. It’s perfectly legal today. We will make that a crime because what it amounts to frankly is a system of legalized bribery or legalized extortion. It will be prohibited, it will be a crime and I predict that people are not going to do it for that reason.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And Senator McConnell, you think otherwise.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Well, of course, there’s been no evidence of corruption whatsoever. We have asked the proponents of this legislation to give us examples of corruption. They have been unable to do that because there’s no evidence of it. Second, you can’t give that kind of money to a candidate. Since 1974, you’ve only been able to contribute $1,000 to a candidate in a primary and $1,000 to the general election. You can’t contribute –

MARGARET WARNER: Excuse me for interrupting you. What I’m really asking you is about the likely impact of this new legislation. You said that you thought officials, the senators, congressmen, the president, will still be involved in essentially the same activity but for someone else.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Oh, sure. The Congressional Black Caucus insisted on a provision in the bill that we finally passed here today that specifically allows members to go out and raise unlimited, unlimited soft money for outside groups. They have been able to do that for parties. They’ll no longer be able to do that parties, they’ll simply do it for outside groups. That’s not in dispute.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: As a matter of fact, it is in dispute and we specifically wrote the language to make it clear that if a member of Congress is involved in raising that kind of money for that kind of group, they cannot say and cannot participate in a process where that will be specified to be used for an election. In other words, it’s just the opposite in the current system where candidates can actually call up and say, you can’t give it directly — Senator McConnell is right — you can’t give it directly to a person’s campaign committee – but you can say, give a half a million dollars to the Republican National Committee, and they’ll spend it on me. That’s the fraud that is going on now and our bill puts it to an end.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: But, Margaret, we know which groups are likely to be for us. Whether we whisper in their ear to go help us or not, we have a pretty good sense of which outside groups are sympathetic with us, and this bill has a gaping loophole that allows members of Congress to go out and raise money in the same amounts that they used to raise for the parties to now raise in the same amounts that money for outside groups that we know –

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: But the big difference –

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: — are sympathetic to us.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator McConnell, then how does that connect to another point this you have been making that these same advocacy groups, whether they’re anti-abortion or pro-abortion or whatever, that this bill also prohibits them from using soft money for ads near an election.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Right. Well, first of all, I think even the reformers quietly believe that that is very likely to be struck down in court. There have been other U.S. circuit court opinions striking down almost exactly the language that’s exactly in this bill seeking to make it impossible for regular citizens to go out and express themselves in proximity to an election if they mention the name of someone like me. But let’s assume it were upheld. I don’t believe it will be. But let’s assume it were upheld. They’ll just do it before 60 days before the election because you can’t quiet the voices of Americans. You can’t do that in democracy.

We’ve got a $2 trillion budget we pass here every year and it has an enormous impact on the country. People want to be able to have their say. Particularly do they want to be able to have their say within proximity of an election. I don’t think there’s any chance the court will uphold that provision.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: The question really hit the nail on the head — which as Senator McConnell — and he is a tremendously worthy opponent – but he can’t have it both ways. On the one hand he said the system is going to be the same; the money is just going to be shifted. On the other hand he says we’re going to be cracking down so much on people’s free speech. Well, which is it? I mean, either there is going to be the same amount of speech in other ways, or we’re cracking down on free speech.

The fact is we’re shutting down a couple of scams that have grown up in American politics. One is the phony issue ads; the other is the raising of soft money that is specifically coordinated with the political parties to be used in political campaigns. We’re not trying to stop independent expenditures. Independent expenditures that are truly independent on issues are protected by the First Amendment, and that’s where we stop. We stopped short of that. We’re trying to stop the scams.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Senator Feingold, what about the point that the critics are making that the national parties who have come to rely very heavily on this soft money aren’t going to have that available anymore, and that quite naturally power is going to devolve from them, whether it’s the state and local parties, whether it’s the outside groups, corporations, unions, whatever?

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: Thank God they won’t have that power any more. The national parties have only had this outrageous power in the last few years where they could get huge checks from corporations and unions and individuals. We had a pretty good country before that when the local parties and the local candidates had some freedom and they didn’t have to come begging to Washington asking the chairman of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee or the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and say, please, would you give me some money. We’re going to be much better off without some Washington political parties running everything.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator McConnell, could that be possibly be healthy for the system that the state and local parties will have a little more influence, a little more impact?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: I don’t know that they’ll have more influence, but I don’t see how it could possibly be good for the country to have weaker political parties, the one entity out there that will always help a challenger. Now what we’ve done is empower even more the outside interest groups, most of which tend to tilt toward us incumbents, and take away from 40 to 50 percent of the revenue of the Democratic and Republican National Committees. Weaker parties, it seems to me, is not a step in the right direction of having a stronger democracy.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: Well, both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were elected under the old system. I think it worked pretty well.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Feingold, you are going to, I gather, lead this – excuse me, Senator McConnell, lead this court challenge. What will be the basis of it and how quickly can you get it going? Do you have to wait until the bill essentially takes effect for starters?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Well, we’ll be announcing a legal team sometime very soon. And we’ll be going to court promptly after the president signs the bill. We expect the president to sign the bill. So in the next few days we’ll be able to unveil our team and we’ll be filing shortly. And it’ll be up to the courts. And the provisions obviously that are going to be challenged are the 60-day gag rule against citizens in expressing themselves, 60 days before an election. We also believe that the federalization of the parties by eliminating non-federal money raises serious 1st, 5th, and 10th Amendment issues. We’ll raise all of those in court. And there’s an expedited procedure in the bill that both sides agreed to. It will be a decision of a three-judge court here in the District of Columbia, which will go straight to the U.S. Supreme Court.

MARGARET WARNER: All right.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: This will be a very, very important First Amendment case.

MARGARET WARNER: We’re just about out of time. Senator Feingold, can I assume you think you can withstand the challenge?

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: Yes, I’ll be a defendant but a happy defendant along with the United States of America and the Administration and all the parties. We believe that we’re going win this in court and we look forward to the argument and to the ruling.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you both very much.