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McCain-Feingold, named for the two Senators who introduced it - John McCain (R-AZ) and Russell Feingold (D-WI), focuses on two basic issues, reducing campaign spending and eliminating so-called "Soft Money."
"Our soft money ban would serve two purposes," Sen. McCain said. "First, it would reduce the amount of money in campaigns; second, it would cause candidates to spend more time campaigning for small donor donations from people back home."
McCain-Feingold, Take Two
In an effort to boost the chances of Senate approval, Sens. McCain and Feingold have offered a substitute version of the bill that would weaken some of the more controversial provisions and add other bans sought by Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) has called the new version the "slimmed down McCain-Feingold."
The new version is particularly weaker in its dealings with political action committees (PACs). The original bill banned PAC contributions to federal candidates. It also had back-up limits, which included lowering PAC contribution limits from $5,000 to $1,000 and requiring that candidates receive no more than 20 percent of his or her total contributions from PACs. In McCain-Feingold II, the ban has been dropped, the total PAC contribution cap has been reduced from $5,000 to $2,500, and PAC money can make up 25 percent of total contributions.
One of the other major factors that have been altered to reduce opposition has been a re-evaluation of the free air-time for candidates proposal. The first version of the bill said that all complying candidates would receive 30 minutes of primetime television time during the general election. The substitute is silent on free time, saying instead that, "In drafting a substitute proposal, the free time provision will be examined to ensure that it does not adversely affect some broadcast stations."
"I hope that there will be a provision in there that either has reduced cost or free TV time available," said Sen. Richard Durbin. "Unless we do that we're really not to the heart of the problem, which is the overall rising costs of campaigns. I spent over 80 percent of the I raised in Illinois for television. And we have to the costs of the candidates who don't spend as much scrambling for money."
The bill also hoped to limit the ability of wealthy individuals to use their money to defeat spending limits. The original said candidates could spend $250,000 or 10 percent of the total election costs, whichever is less, of their own money per election cycle, meaning for both primaries and the general election. The revised bill would alter these provision substantively. If the candidates are from smaller states, they can spend $25,000 of their own money in the primary and then another $25,000 in the general. If it is an election in a larger state the limits are raised to $50,000 per election.
"This provision serves to limit the advantages that wealthy candidates enjoy and strengthen the party system by encouraging candidates to work more closely with the parties," Sen. McCain said as the Senate opened debate on the provision last Friday.
Responding to Republican Issues.
The new bill also specifically addressed issues raised by Republicans as a result of the 1996 elections. First the bill bans contributions from individuals not eligible to vote in federal elections. Secondly, the bill also writes into law the Supreme Court decision that said that members of unions could request a refund of their dues if they were used in a political manner against the beliefs of the member. Many Republicans, some of whom had been targeted by a $35 million ad campaign launched by the AFL-CIO in 1996, wanted to keep unions from using their dues to fund similar projects after the spending limits were in place.
"The Beck decision states that a non-union employee working in a closed shop union workplace and who is required to contribute funds to the union can request and be assured that his or her money will not be used for political purposes," McCain said. "I personally support much stronger language. I believe that no individual, union member or not, should be required to contribute to political activities; however, I recognize that such stronger language would invite a filibuster of this bill and would doom its final passage."
Leveling the Playing Field
The new version of McCain-Feingold would also attempt to "level the playing field" between complying and non-complying candidates. If a candidate is obeying the caps and restrictions set forth in the campaign law and the other candidate they are facing is not, the bill attempts to improve the opportunities of the complying candidate. Individuals could contribute $2,000 to the campaign, as opposed to the current $1,000 limit, and PACs could donate $5,000 instead of the $2,500 limit proposed in the bill. The candidate would also receive more assistance from the national party.
Critics charged that if "soft money" was banned than more money would go into independent campaigns. When he introduced his bill, Sen. McCain acknowledged this trend.
"If soft money is banned to political parties, money will inevitably flow to independent campaign organizations," Mr. McCain said. "These groups run as even the candidates who benefit from them often disapprove of. Further, these ads are almost negative attacks on a candidate and do little to further healthy political debate. As we all know, they are usually intended to defeat a candidate and are often, in reality, coordinated with a campaign of that candidate's opponent."
To deal with this growing issue, the McCain-Feingold includes a so-called "Independent Expenditures." These are campaigns, whether advertising, handbills, or commercials that are not funded by a political party but promote one of the specific candidates. McCain-Feingold proposed to ban advertising that advocated the election or defeat of a given candidate within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. The revised bill clarified between issue advocacy and those targeting candidates. Ads focusing on candidates would be subject to full funding disclosure and be paid for with funds raised under federal election law.
The revised bill has attracted the support of another Republican Senator, Mr. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. That puts the total number of Senators who have openly endorsed McCain-Feingold at 49, one short of a tie that Vice President Gore could break. Debate is expected to continue for approximately a week and vote are to begin early this week.
Experts have said that the reform proposal will not rectify all the problems of campaign financing, but many have said that this proposal may help manage the issue.
"The entire Congress needs to ask the question of whether we want to allow public officials to retain the power which they exercised with gusto in 1996 to seek aggressively, if not demand, unlimited campaign contributions from private citizens, corporations, and unions," Thomas Mann, resident congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. "The problem of money in politics in this country is endemic to our system. It rests with the reality of a market economy, a free speech guarantee, and the quest for political equality. We will never solve this problem, but we can manage it better than it's managed now."
Still far apart...
Although the bill has been modified to try and allay opponents fears, many of the Senators opposed to the bill continue to say the reform is fundamentally flawed.
"When you sit down and scrub it all the way through, it's really a series of suggestions of how the federal government will regulate how people speak in a political advocacy circumstance," Sen. Robert Bennett said on Friday's NewsHour. "In any other context that would be called censorship."
The other major voice in opposition to campaign reform, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said that the result of reform would be a limit on political speech.
"You hear them say time and time again we heard it this morning and we'll hear it next week," Sen. McConnell said on the first day of debate. "We're spending too much in American politics. Now, remember what the Supreme Court says that means that they're saying. They're saying we're speaking too much."
Sen. Feingold took to the floor to rebut Sen. McConnell's charges and his words indicate how difficult it will be to bridge the differences.
"For 2 years . . . the Senator from Arizona and I have been stymied by opponents of reform who desperately cling to the absurd notion that the more money you pour into the political system that our democracy somehow gets better," Sen. Feingold said. "Sometimes the comparison is made that we spend as much money on elections as we spend on potato chips. I don't know what this has to do with the question of political reform but it is an argument we are treated to anyway. Of course, no one outside the Washington Beltway believes in that argument. No one outside of this town thinks we need more money spent on the political process."