THE LOTT AMENDMENT
October 2, 1997
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JIM LEHRER: Continuing our coverage of the campaign finance reform debate, the Senate will start voting on the McCain-Feingold legislation next week. The first major test will be an amendment offered by Trent Lott, the Majority Leader. Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-Chicago begins our look at that amendment.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Workers from three separate unions make up the work force at the A. Finkl & Sons steel plant in Chicago. This steel die, forged by union blacksmiths and boiler makers, will eventually be used as a mold for automobile bumpers. As in most union shops union dues are deducted from workers' paychecks once a month. Some of that dues money is used by the unions for political activities. That does bother John Weber, a 25-year member of the Blacksmiths Union.
JOHN WEBER, Union Member: I get my union paper, and I read what they're saying, and they have their lists of lawmakers who vote pro and anti-union. And I usually agree with their opinions. I would think that anyone who would disagree with the union on that is cutting their own throat.
SPOKESMAN: Senator from Mississippi, Mr. Lott, proposes an Amendment No. 1264.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But an amendment to the campaign finance reform bill introduced by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott would require unions to get written permission from the rank and file before using union dues for political purposes. That doesn't sit well with Weber.
JOHN WEBER: I think it's the Republican Congress trying to bust the unions basically. They don't want them to have any political place in Washington.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But that's not the way the union steward with Aerospace & Engineers Union at Finkl Steel sees it. Each month $29.50 is deducted from Milford Jordan's paycheck. By the end of the year he will have paid $350 from about a $40,000 a year salary for union dues. He thinks the union should get his permission before using his money for politics.
MILFORD JORDAN, Union Member: I think that's a good idea for each member to know how his money is actually spent, how his dues are invested, and what the returns are going to be on those dues. I think it's your money, you should know.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Do you have any idea how much of your money goes for political activity?
MILFORD JORDAN: No, I don't. I just seen how much was spent in the last election, and that's why I think--I guess this was the most money ever spent--
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: At a downtown Chicago road construction repair project Operating Engineers Union Member Gene Dengler pays an even bigger chunk of his salary for union dues, $1400 a year on a salary of about $60,000.
GENE DENGLER, Union Member: If it's my right to vote on it, I'd like my right--I'd like to be able to vote on it, or, you know, check it, or whatever.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And why would that make a difference to you?
GENE DENGLER: It's my money, and I'm paying--you know, it's nice to know where your money is going.
GEORGE HAGOPIAN, Union Member: I think that it's an attempt to make it harder on the unions to be politically active, but there's nothing wrong with everyone being involved. If individual members want more say to what they want to do, that's fine.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Do you want to have a checkoff?
GEORGE HAGOPIAN: It wouldn't make a difference to me because I endorse my union's political activities, and I'm active also.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In the 1996 campaigns the AFL-CIO voted for a one-time 15-cent assessment per member to generate money for issue ad campaigns.
AD SPOKESMAN: What's important to America's families?
MAN IN AD: You can't do anything without an education these days, but how do you pay for it? That's what I worry about.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The dues assessment produced $35 million, which financed a union advertising blitz targeted at districts where Republicans looked vulnerable.
SPOKESMAN: If your members have the information, they'll go the polls and they'll vote.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The head of the AFL-CIO in Illinois pushed political education for members at a Carpenters Union convention in Chicago. He says the Lott amendment would take money out of union coffers, since members may not give permission for the deduction or, bogged down by the paperwork, locals might opt out of political activity.
DON JOHNSON, President, Illinois AFL-CIO: I'd be bouncing off the walls if they passed it because it would really, it would really inhibit our ability to be effective. There really isn't any other organization out there that can put forth the effort that we can. And they want to take us out of the loop.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Why would it take you out of the loop?
DON JOHNSON: If you don't have money, you don't have access. And if you don't have access, you're absolutely out of the loop.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Fellow union leader Dick Ladzinski, Illinois Carpenters Union chief, also sees big problems.
DICK LADZINSKI, Illinois Council of Carpenters: It would be hamstringing us. We, in turn, would like to use "our" money as we see fit to the proper benefit of our membership, the same as the corporations are doing. We don't want to be treated any different than some of these corporations are being treated.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The amendment does say that corporations would also have to have written permission from employees and stockholders before "dues, fees, or payments will be used for political activities." A vote on the Lott amendment is expected next week.
JIM LEHRER: Now, the differing views of two members of the Senate committee investigating campaign fund-raising: Republican Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois.
Sen. Cochran, are the labor leaders correct in being worried about how this might affect--the Lott amendment might affect their ability to participate in politics?
SEN. THAD COCHRAN, (R) Mississippi: I think the question is whether or not this is in the public interest to make sure that those who are contributing money that is used in the political system are doing it voluntarily; that nobody's being coerced or taken--money taken from them without their permission for political purposes. That's what the Lott amendments says. It would apply equally to labor unions, as well as corporations. And I think a majority of the Senate will support that amendment when we vote on it next week.
JIM LEHRER: You do not support it, Sen. Durbin, right?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN, (D) Illinois: No, I don't. Gov. Anne Richards of Texas used to say you can put lipstick on a pig and call her Monique and it's still a pig. And in this situation Sen. Lott's little labor amendment is lethal. It is designed to force a veto, to stop the debate, and really to put an end to campaign finance reform this year and no surprise. Sen. Lott and Sen. Gingrich have made it clear they don't want the rules changed. They like it the way it is. They're raising plenty of money, and they want it to continue.
JIM LEHRER: Take us through a scenario as to how this would kill campaign finance reform, Sen. Durbin.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, this is what it's all about. In the 1996 election organized labor spent about $35 million in soft money. The Republicans resent it. Most of the money was used against them. Even though business outspent labor almost two to one, the Republican majority in Congress now is trying to stop labor from participating in the political process. And they put this in. They understand the hardship it would create trying to get the sign up for every single member of the labor union before you can start spending money. And they want to stop it. Frankly, we understand that on the Democratic side, and I hope that we can find a couple of Senators, Republican Senators, who will come forward and join the 45 Democrats and the 4 Republicans who said they'll vote for McCain-Feingold without the Lott amendment.
JIM LEHRER: A lot has been said, Sen. Cochran--in fact, this Lott amendment has been referred to as a poison pill amendment, that its real intension is, in fact, to stop campaign finance reform in the McCain-Feingold legislation at least, is that correct?
SEN. THAD COCHRAN: My view is that it's designed to deal with one of the real problems that we have in the political system now and that is the coercive use of funds from union members and some non-union members who are required to pay dues, even though they are not a member of the union. If the union is representing their interests in collective bargaining, those agency fees, as they're called, can be used for political purposes. And so that's another reason why I think the Lott amendment has the support of a majority of the Senators, which we're trying to deal with this, I think, in a way to encourage political participation, not discourage it, as Sen. Durbin and others are arguing. We're not trying to shut out the participation by union members or even the union leadership. What we're trying to do is get more people with confidence in the integrity of the political system who understand that their vote counts, their individual participation is important. That's what's a problem right now. You see so many organized groups dominating the system with a lot of money and other people, the individual citizen, feels shut out. That's wrong and it's time to make those changes.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Durbin, why isn't it time to make these changes?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, let me tell you how transparent this is. Sen. Lott filed his amendment, I believe, in eight different versions. He used part of the Senate rules to make sure that this would be the only amendment which we can consider. It is an amendment that cannot be amended. It is designed to stop the debate. He understands that if he can get this amendment enacted with a majority of the Republicans, that that's the end of campaign finance reform.
JIM LEHRER: Why is it the end?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: It's the end because he knows it will force a veto. It will put a stop to the debate. The President doesn't support it. The Democratic Party doesn't support it. Basically you have an amendment which is popular with the Republican Party in business. We had a bill that was a bipartisan bill before this amendment was offered that we can pass and make real progress in reforming the system. Let me give you one statistic. In the first six months of this year there has been a lot of soft money that's been raised by both political parties. The business community has raised $26 million and contributed to candidates. Labor has raised and contributed $1 million--26 to 1. The Lott amendment wants to stop this labor participation. They think it's an outrage. I think this idea to gag working men and women across this country is an outrage as well.
JIM LEHRER: An outrage, Sen. Cochran, is that what you're up to?
SEN. THAD COCHRAN: I think everybody would be outraged if we had to vote on only one bill without any amendment, no changes permitted, as apparently is being suggested by the Democrats. We think that there should be a strengthening of the enforcement of rules we do have. Some of the laws were absolutely blatantly violated in this last presidential election. We've got to underline and underscore the fact, for example, that you can't use federal properties for fund-raisers as this administration did with the White House, having fund-raising events, assigning targets and quotas for events at the White House that were designed to raise money for the Democratic National Committee and which were used, we are now finding out through our hearing testimony, in the direct election campaign for the President and the Vice President. That has to be stopped. That's a part of the debate now. I don't think we should stop the debate just because the Lott amendment passes. There are other changes that are just as important and ought to be approved by the Senate.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Durbin and Sen. Cochran, beginning with you, Sen. Durbin, let's go through some possible scenarios to make sure that those of us who don't follow the intricacies of the Senate can figure out what's going on here. What you're saying, Sen. Durbin, if this Lott amendment does pass, that you and other Democrats will change and will not support McCain-Feingold, correct?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, of course.
JIM LEHRER: All right.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: And frankly we're in a situation where we can't even amend the Lott amendment; we can't offer any amendments.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: We're stuck.
JIM LEHRER: All right. So you would then vote against McCain-Feingold?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: Would you filibuster?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, I don't know if that's our only recourse at this point but it really is for all practical purposes the end of the debate on campaign finance reform. After seven or eights weeks of hearings in the Government Affairs Committee, all of these transgressions that have been brought forward, we finally have a chance to do something to clean up the system. Sen. Lott's amendment stops the debate.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, Sen. Cochran if, on the other hand, the Lott amendment is not accepted and it's defeated, would you and your fellow Republicans particularly led by Sen. McConnell filibuster the bill as now written?
SEN. THAD COCHRAN: My hope is that we would continue to try to improve this bill by offering amendments such as I suggested underscoring some of the rules and laws that we have now. There's some question apparently in the minds of some at the Department of Justice about whether the activities at the White House were violative of existing law. I feel that they were clearly violative of existing law, and we need to make sure that that's in the law so that everybody understands it for the future. There are other changes too that ought to be considered, giving somebody the authority to enforce the laws that we have. There are very few actions taken now in district courts like is now being taken in New York, incidentally, to enforce the campaign laws. We need to do a better job of that as well.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with Sen. Durbin's interpretation; however, as a practical matter, if the Lott amendment is adopted because President Clinton has said he would veto that bill and the Democrats won't support it, they're the main supporters of McCain-Feingold now that for all practical purposes this thing is over?
SEN. THAD COCHRAN: Well, I think it would be unfortunate if we had to concede that it's their way or no way. I think we continue to keep trying to get real reform and changes that the American public deserve in the election process.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Durbin, Sen. McCain, the Republican co-sponsor of this bill, gave an interview today with a newspaper in Arizona, his home state. And he said if this happens, if the Lott amendment is adopted, it is dead. Is that--and that--that's the position that you Democrats were taking along with the Republicans who support this as well?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: That's an important point that you must made, Jim. We now have not only all 45 Democrats in the Senate but at least three and maybe four Republican Senators who've had the guts to step forward and say we'll support the bipartisan bill. What Senator Lott and his followers are doing is stopping this debate before we can try to persuade one or two more Republicans to step forward and say this is the right way to go; let's make this truly bipartisan. It is a partisan effort to end campaign finance reform, and the Republican Party is going to have to bear that burden in the 1998 election.
JIM LEHRER: Do you see that as a burden to bear, Sen. Cochran?
SEN. THAD COCHRAN: Well, I think it's a misinterpretation of the facts. The stopping of the debate would be at the Democrats' insistence, not the Republicans. We are willing to proceed with campaign reform. The Lott Amendment is one amendment. There are many others that ought to be considered to this bill to improve it and assure that the public interest is served, not just the Democratic Party's interest, not just the labor union leadership's interest. So I think we have to get that straight.
JIM LEHRER: Well, Sen. Durbin, I don't know what's going to happen. Tuesday is when the vote is, right, and--
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: I hope it will be Tuesday.
JIM LEHRER: Hope it will be Tuesday. And you all--you, Democrats, are not going to filibuster. You're going to vote against the Lott amendment and then that's the end of it? I mean--
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: It could be. It could be. And I hope that's not the case.
JIM LEHRER: Well, Sen. Cochran, just from a political standpoint, then what do you Republicans do with a Lott amendment? I mean, will you go ahead and enact McCain-Feingold with the Lott amendment and then let the President veto it or what? Do you have a strategy beyond that, in other words, a hope beyond that?
SEN. THAD COCHRAN: I don't think the schedule of the Senate has been announced by the leader after that, or assuming that that amendment is agreed to. I'm sure in consultation with the Democratic leader, they will decide how to proceed with the business of the Senate. We do have other issues. We have appropriations bills. The end of the fiscal year has already come and gone. We have some bills that have to be passed by October 23 to continue funding the activities of the government. So there are other pressing matters. We could set aside this issue, come back to it later in the year, or next year, but I don't think this is the end of the debate. I think the American public is demanding and insisting that we improve the system, and I think we ought to try to do that, and this is a big step in that direction.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Durbin--and I'll come back to you on this too, Sen. Cochran--members of the American public who are watching the two of you, what should they believe then about the status of campaign finance reform tonight?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: What they ought to know is this: There is only one bipartisan bill for campaign finance reform--the McCain-Feingold bill. It is a bill that is supported by 45 Democratic Senators and three or four Republicans as of this moment. It's supported by the President of the United States. All of the other efforts to stop this or to replace it are strictly partisan. This is the only bipartisan bill. It's our only chance for campaign finance reform this year. And if Sen. Lott's amendment kills it, it's a burden that his party will have to carry.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Cochran.
SEN. THAD COCHRAN: There are a number of improvements and changes in the system that are being considered by the Senate. The Lott amendment is one of them. There are others. I've mentioned some to strengthen existing law enforcement and also to clarify some of the uncertainties that exist now about using federal properties for fund-raising and the like. There are other changes that other Senators are suggesting--greater disclosure, a system by which the American people have access to more information about who's supporting whom and to what extent financially. This is just a part of what we're trying to do to help restore confidence in the electoral process.
JIM LEHRER: All right, gentlemen. Thank you both very much.