Kwame Holman reports on the status of campaign finance reform as the House prepares to look at the issue.
REP. ALBERT WYNN: Hello, ladies and gentlemen.
KWAME HOLMAN: Throughout his five terms in Congress, it's been easy for Maryland Democrat Albert Wynn to spend time with constituents back home. He represents Prince Georges County just a few miles from the U.S. Capitol.
REP. ALBERT WYNN: Where do you go to school?
KWAME HOLMAN: Wynn's easy-going manner and constituent service have made him a popular figure in his district, which is home to America's largest black middle class population. On Monday for instance, Wynn volunteered to read to children at a local library as part of a program sponsored by the Washington Redskins and the National football League.
REP. ALBERT WYNN: Came down with the...
KWAME HOLMAN: But contrary to the low profile he usually displays at home, Wynn has been attracting a great deal of attention back in Congress. He's head of the campaign finance task force for the Congressional Black Caucus. And as most democrats prepare to throw their support tomorrow behind a bill to ban unlimited, unregulated soft money contributions to political parties, Wynn is leading the opposition.
REP. ALBERT WYNN: I'm here to say that this whole notion is a hype, is a sham.
KWAME HOLMAN: Soft money has been used by the two major political parties primarily to produce and broadcast so-called issue or attack ads against opposition candidates. During the 2000 elections, the two parties combined to spend nearly $500 million of soft money. And they continue to raise money at a record pace as they take aim at next year's elections.
SPOKESMAN: Ladies and gentlemen, the President.
KWAME HOLMAN: In one evening last month, President Bush helped raise more than $20 million to support Republican Congressional candidates. The next night, former President Clinton helped raise $2 million at a democratic event -- all this during a non-election year. But while the parties have used soft money mostly to air issue ads, a small part traditionally has been used to pay for voter registration drives. Albert Wynn claims the proposed ban would not stop soft money from finding its way into the campaign system, but it would devastate the political parties' get-out-the-vote efforts.
REP. ALBERT WYNN: We are concerned with the national African-American, Hispanic minority vote, the vote of women, the vote of low-income communities. We believe it's important to invest more money to get that vote out.
REP. MARTIN MEEHAN: Look, I respect al Wynn a lot but he's defending the indefensible.
KWAME HOLMAN: Massachusetts Democrat Martin Meehan, along with Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays, are the architects of the soft money ban that is the core of the main campaign reform bill.
REP. MARTIN MEEHAN: Soft money is the reason that we don't have prescription drug coverage as part of the Medicare program. Soft money is the reason that when we had a Conference Committee on reasonable gun safety legislation, it died after one meeting.
KWAME HOLMAN: And Meehan argues soft money is the reason there aren't more minority voters.
REP. MARTIN MEEHAN: It's why voter participation is going down in America. The reason why working families aren't as active and involved in grassroots parties is because they look at it and they say, they don't need me. The big money interests are deciding what the political parties do. It's disenfranchising the base of what should be the base of the Democratic Party.
KWAME HOLMAN: In short, the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill would ban all soft money contributions to national political parties currently made by corporations, unions and individuals; bar corporations and unions from broadcasting issue ads mentioning a federal candidate 60 days before an election; and require special interest groups that do run ads to disclose their expenditures and contributors. The Shays-Meehan bill passed the House by large margins in 1998 and '99, but both times the effort stalled in the Senate. However, in April, the Senate finally approved the soft money ban in a similar bill by Senators McCain and Feingold. But the Senate's action now has members in the House reevaluating their support.
REP. MARTIN MEEHAN: Well, I suppose there are some members of the House who are looking at this and saying "by golly, this could become law." The President may actually sign the bill and they're looking at it more closely than they did in the past. And they're asking more questions than they have in the past, which is fine and we're trying to respond to those questions.
KWAME HOLMAN: And those questions are being raised primarily by members of the Black and Hispanic caucuses, worried that a total ban on soft money would hurt minority voter participation. The two groups comprise 56 Democrats, almost all of whom, including Albert Wynn, voted for campaign finance reform in the past. Most members haven't yet announced how they'll vote tomorrow.
REP. BOB NEY: People are saying wait a minute. Let's catch our breath. Let's get responsible. Let's do it the right way.
KWAME HOLMAN: Ohio's Bob Ney is chairman of the House Administration Committee and has crafted an alternative campaign finance reform bill, which has the backing of most Republicans. Under Ney's proposal, individual soft money contributions to national political parties would be capped at $75,000 a year; the parties would be allowed to use that money for voter registration and get-out-the- vote activities, but not to broadcast issue ads; and there would be no restrictions on corporations and unions broadcasting issue ads.
REP. BOB NEY: Our bill is constitutionally up to muster. Shays-Meehan isn't. Ours does not gag individual citizens that belong to advocacy groups. Shays-Meehan does.
KWAME HOLMAN: And Ney's bill has done something Republican campaign finance alternatives failed to do in the past: It's attracted Democrats. One of them is Albert Wynn. In fact, Wynn has signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill.
REP. ALBERT WYNN: Well, I think, obviously, people in Democratic leadership not terribly happy with the idea, but some probably have indicated they think I'm doing the right thing, and I think that is certainly important.
KWAME HOLMAN: Wynn says the bill is a compromise that regulates soft money without diminishing the role of the two main political parties.
REP. ALBERT WYNN: We think it's important that there be money for a get out the vote effort, voter education, voter mobilization. And so we've said, instead of an outright ban of soft money, we should restrict it, regulate it, allow limited contributions of $75,000 per contributor, fully disclosed, and restricted in terms of how it can be used. The parties could not use this money for attack ads or criticizing the other party or other candidates, but only for legitimate get out the vote efforts.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Martin Meehan argues the Ney-Wynn bill is not serious campaign finance reform because it still would allow unrestricted soft money contributions to state political parties.
REP. MARTIN MEEHAN: How is it a legitimate campaign finance reform bill, if a member of the united states senate can pick up the phone and raise millions and millions of dollars from wealthy individuals and corporations and have it funneled through their state party and then be used in their campaign in negative television ads against your opponent. That's a loophole that means that it is nothing but a sham.
KWAME HOLMAN: Nonetheless, Ney says his bill is gaining momentum as members head into tomorrow's debate.
REP. MARTIN MEEHAN: Right now I think we're going in cautiously, optimistic and hoping our version will come out. By no stretch of anyone's imagination can we believe that we're way ahead or for the fact that Shays-Meehan is way ahead.
KWAME HOLMAN: Today Martin Meehan wasn't ready to declare victory either.