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A New Look at Campaign Finance Reform

November 28, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Joining us now are three lawmakers with very different solutions to the campaign finance problem. They are Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, co-author of the McCain-Feingold bill, which was filibustered to defeat last year; Democratic Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, author of a proposed constitutional amendment to let Congress impose campaign spending limits; and Republican Congressman John Doolittle of California — who plans to introduce a bill next year to eliminate all limits on campaign contributions, in return for full disclosure. Thank you all, gentlemen, for being with us. We’’ve had a number of discussions on the show the past month about what’s wrong with the current system, and what we want to do tonight is look individually at your solutions. Starting with you, Sen. McCain, outline for us, simply if you can, the basic provisions of the McCain-Feingold bill.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN, (R) Arizona: Yes and the main provision that is of the utmost importance, Margaret, is it’s bipartisan. They’re not going to get a solution to this problem unless it’s bipartisan. That’s a fact and a reality, and the sooner we face up to it, the better off we’re going to be. What it calls for is voluntary restraints in spending in return for which free television and low bulk rate mail will be given to the candidates. This would bring down the cost of spending, and it would bring down, in my view, the money chase that so many politicians complain about and yet engage in so avidly. And we also require full disclosure, obviously. We require a ban on soft money, a ban on Political Action Committees. If that were unconstitutional, then it would reduce the PAC contributions to the same as an individual contribution. And it would make the candidate responsible for the messages that the candidate gives, which we hope would cut down on the negative aspects of campaigning.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, tell me how you would deal with–when you say a ban on soft money, do you mean that no longer could people give huge contributions which then they could turn around and spend, as we saw this past year, indirectly, but on behalf of candidates?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: We would just put the same restrictions on it that you do for individual contributions.

MARGARET WARNER: I see. Sen. Bradley, critique, if you would, the McCain-Feingold bill.

SEN. BILL BRADLEY, (D) New Jersey: I think the McCain-Feingold bill is a good start. I mean, I agree with many of the provisions in the bill. I don’t think we’ll be able to get fundamental campaign finance reform though, until we have a constitutional amendment that allows Congress to limit the total amount of money that can be spent in a campaign and the total amount of money an individual may spend on his or her campaign. I think that is the fundamental issue here. I think that voluntary restraints are fine, but I think ultimately–unless you have the Supreme Court change its ruling–you’ll have to have a constitutional amendment, because the Supreme Court has said, essentially, that a rich man’s wallet is the same thing in free speech terms as a poor man’s soap box.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Senator, I want to get to your proposal in a minute, but let’s just go back to the McCain-Feingold bill. Why do you not think that the voluntary spending limits which, as the Senator explained, would be in return for getting reduced TV rates and so on, why would that not do the same thing?

SEN. BILL BRADLEY: Well, I think (a) because it’s voluntary. Reduced TV rates, some free TV, I’d like to have free TV too as a part of a proposal. I just do not think that it will be comprehensive enough. The reason is–I mean, I think that money in politics is a little bit like ants in your kitchen. You have to block all the holes, or some of them are going to find a way in. And I think that the McCain-Feingold bill is a good start. I do not think that it is comprehensive enough.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. McCain, what do you say to the point Sen. Bradley made that your bill doesn’t seem to do anything about the really rich man or woman who doesn’t need any kind of free TV time, that can afford anything, and essentially can buy his or her way into the Senate or the House?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: That’s an excellent point. If the rich person violated those voluntary spending limits, then the person who did not violate would then receive significant relaxations in his or her ability to raise money. So there would also be an added benefit if the opponent did spend–did not abide by the voluntary limits. And, by the way, there would be free TV time, which 70 to 80 percent of any Senate race is devoted to, and low bulk rates for mailing.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Doolittle, what is your assessment of the McCain-Feingold bill?

REP. JOHN DOOLITTLE, (R) California: I think It’s headed in the wrong direction, as the present policy that we have in effect right now is. And this reminds me of a doctor who is treating a patient. He makes his diagnosis and begins a treatment. The patient gets sicker and sicker, and then the new remedy is to simply double the dosage. You’re going to kill the patient. I think what we need to do is go back to the drawing board and examine what really is the problem and then figure out the solution. I mean, you know, these are basically approaches–Sen. Bradley’s and Sen. McCain’s–that deal with more restrictions, more regulations. What we have as law now is the reform of 22 years ago. I don’t think it’ll work.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. McCain, what about that point, that more of the same, albeit in a slightly different form, and it hasn’t worked up till now?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, yet, I think this proposal, which has broad bipartisan backing–public interest groups ranging from Common Cause and others who are expert in the area–is indicative that this can work. And by the way, six different states in the last election, the state’s voters enacted some measures similar to this. We have in Arizona somewhat similar laws, as far as campaign spending is concerned. And it’s been working in state races. And with all due respect to the Congressman, I don’t think that the American people believe that spending should be unlimited on political campaigns.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Sen. Bradley, your turn. Now outline exactly what the constitutional amendment would say and what do you think that would lead to.

SEN. BILL BRADLEY: Well, the constitutional amendment would simply say that the Congress and states and local municipalities may limit the total amount of money spent in a political campaign and the amount of money an individual makes to his or her campaign. After that passed, it would then be up to the states and the Congress to enact legislation that would set those limits. I have my own view as to what that limitation should be–a couple of hundred dollars in terms of a primary campaign. And in a general election, what I’d like to see is the election, itself, financed or people who contribute to a Senate race to a fund and then that fund on Labor Day would be divided equally among Republicans and Democrats, or qualified Independents. And that would be all the money in politics. I don’t think people would agree with Congressman Doolittle that there’s not enough money spent in politics. I think the American people are very suspicious of politicians, in many cases misplaced suspicions, in some cases, justifiable suspicion, because they believe politicians are controlled increasingly by special interests and by wealthy interests that provide the bulk of the money for political campaigns. The system now is so bad that we need to ready to take some real, significant changes, and so what I’m suggesting is that we can do politics in a better way that’s more responsive to the people and to the voices of the people, and most responsive to the special interests, and this would be an important step in the right direction.

MARGARET WARNER: I know that your proposal–I know that it’s not in the constitutional amendment, but would you also hope that then that would lead–what would it lead to in the way of PAC’s, in the way of soft money?

SEN. BILL BRADLEY: PAC’s would be eliminated. There would be no PAC’s. In terms of soft money, you’d close that hole as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. McCain, what do you say to that?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, I say that if you look at the history of our ability to pass amendments to the Constitution, it’s very rare; it’s a long, drawn out process. It’s one that I think would be extremely difficult, especially if you began with Congress approving it, because you run into the same kind of problem that we’re running into now. So I think, in theory, what Bill is talking about is probably, in the purest sense, a good way to go, but I just don’t see the Congress of the United States and the required number of states passing a constitutional amendment within a relatively short period of time. And obviously, the problem is compelling.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Doolittle, let’s go into your proposal, because you have already critiqued both of theirs. Outline what the bill is that you’re working on now that you’re going to introduce.

REP. JOHN DOOLITTLE: Well, Margaret, my proposal is based really on these two key premises: one, that an individual ought to be able to freely and voluntary contribute to a campaign; and two, that campaign contributions ought to be fully disclosed. And the basis of our constitutional republic is an informed electorate. The Senators seem to take the approach, and I acknowledge they’re well intentioned, but they same to believe that the people are too busy or not well enough informed to properly make these decisions so we’ve got to have a command and control bureaucracy set up to police this. My position is that as Jefferson said, don’t take the power from the people but inform them in their decisions. I don’t believe, like they do, the system is awash with money. I believe it’s starved for cash. That’s why we have the independent expenditures. That’s why we have the soft money, donations over here. That’s why we have the so-called “educational” ads by labor unions, environmental groups, and groups of all ideological stripes.

MARGARET WARNER: So you’re saying that if you eliminated all the limits that now limit people in what they can give to a candidate, they just, what, give directly to the candidate, they wouldn’t be going the soft money route or the PAC route?

REP. JOHN DOOLITTLE: Sure. Before this reform, you didn’t have–nobody had ever even heard of PAC’s, for that matter, speaking about PAC’s as an illustration that we have today. You wouldn’t necessarily eliminate the PAC’s–you wouldn’t by law do it under my proposal–but there’d be no incentive. Remember, now, PAC’s can give $5,000; an individual can only give $1,000.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me get Sen. McCain. Address that particular point.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I didn’t think that Thomas Jefferson had in mind that if you’re rich, then you can give millions of dollars, and if you’re poor, then, obviously, you can’t, so, therefore, you’re all on an equal basis. I don’t subscribe to that theory, and I do believe that to just open this up to unlimited amounts of money is not appropriate. Nor do I believe that most Americans share that view, but this is why this debate is important to take place both in the House and in the Senate.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Bradley, I know you have such an opposite proposal, but do you see any merit in what Congressman Doolittle’s saying?

SEN. BILL BRADLEY: Margaret, I really–I really don’t. I don’t see any value to having unlimited contributions, no change in PAC’s, and calling for the system to have more money to flow in from whatever source. I mean, I think we already are headed toward an election season in the next term with people who have learned from this election, where because of the Supreme Court ruling in the summer, you’ve got special interests essentially taking out ads that directly attack candidates. I think you’re going to find corporate interests, special interests, labor interests that are going to go directly to very damaging ads, because you cannot limit. You cannot limit the amount of money they spend in a political campaign under the Supreme Court ruling. That brings us back to the issue, don’t we need to amend the Constitution in order to put limits, and my answer is, yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman, you wanted back in–

REP. JOHN DOOLITTLE: I just disagree more with that view. I mean, where’s our Constitution–I will give Sen. Bradley credit for this, he’s honest in seeking to gradually amend it. What he wants to do is to amend the First Amendment, which says, amongst other things, Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. Sen. Bradley wants to abridge the freedom of speech, and he wants to do it in the name of leveling the playing field for elections. I just think it’s an analysis that’s wrong. It will not work. It would be unconstitutional under the present Constitution. And even setting that aside, it’s totally undesirable. Freedom works. We need to go back to freedom, where individuals make these decisions, not where they’re constrained by new laws, and where we have a bureaucracy dictating that broadcasters give away free time. There’s no constitutional precedent for that.

MARGARET WARNER: We’re just about out of time.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: One additional point. One, the broadcasters are required to act in the public interest in return for the use of the spectrum. But more importantly than that, we have lower and lower voter turnout. We have higher and higher level of voter cynicism, and we have less and less confidence and respect for the Congress because of the types of campaigns that are carried on. And I believe that all the trends are in the wrong direction, as far as elections are concerned, except in those states where already those states have passed referendums which are basically along the lines of mine and Russ Feingold’s bill. It has to be bipartisan.

MARGARET WARNER: And briefly, before we go, Sen. Bradley, I’m going to turn to you for a brief prediction, since you’re leaving the Senate, of what do you think will actually happen on this front. Do you think we’ll see–

SEN. BILL BRADLEY: Well, if history is any guide, you’re going to find gridlock here. I hope that it isn’t the case. I hope some progress will be made. One of the reasons I’m leaving the Senate is to go out into the country and try to lead a grassroots movement for fundamental campaign finance reform. I think it’s going to begin in the states. I think the referendums this year in California, Colorado, Alaska, Arkansas, and Maine, all said, look, we need to reduce the role of money in politics. I think that there’s going to be a very powerful grassroots effort, and I also believe that there will be connections drawn between what happens in Washington and the money that’s in politics. Once that connection is properly drawn, then you’re going to find things change dramatically. You’ll see McCain-Feingold pass, and you’ll see a lot more happen. And I hope you’ll also be able, ultimately, to limit the total amount of money spent in a political campaign.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. We have to leave it there. Thank you both Senators and Congressman, thanks very much.