September 30, 1997
The Online Explainers take your question on the investigation.
The NewsHour's coverage of the Congressional Investigation.
The inside stories on the political fight behind the public investigation.
The investigation is big news in Washington, but how's it playing around the country.
A closer look at the issues really under scrutiny by the Congress.
JIM LEHRER: Campaign finance reform. Last night, as part of our ongoing coverage, we heard from two advocates: former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Republican Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker. Tonight, Margaret Warner has the other side.
MARGARET WARNER: The centerpiece of the campaign finance reform bill being debated this week in the Senate is a ban on unrestricted donations to political parties, so-called "soft money." But another key component of the McCain-Feingold bill is causing concern among independent non-party organizations as well. Among other things the bill says that if such groups run ads within 60 days of an election mentioning the name of the candidate the funds financing those ads must meet federal election law disclosure requirements and limits. Currently, independent groups need not meet such requirements as long as their ads don't expressly call for the election or defeat of a particular candidate.
Now, two opponents of the bill who come from opposite ends of the political spectrum: Laura Murphy is the legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union and Randy Tate is the executive director of the Christian Coalition. Laura Murphy, what problems do you see in this bill?
LAURA MURPHY, American Civil Liberties Union: Well, there are many problems but the biggest problem is what the bill does to issue advocacy groups like the ACLU and the Christian Coalition and now the Sierra Club. Basically we would have to become political action committees in order to participate in the political process. We want to be able to talk about candidates' voting records, but because that talk in the eyes of members of Congress may have influence on the outcome of the election we are basically being banned. And the most extreme ban is the one you talked about, which is 60 days before an election, a primary or general election. We would not be able to run issue ads on radio or on television explaining what issues are at stake in the upcoming election. We think that that's a terrible violation of the First Amendment.
MARGARET WARNER: But now, Senator McCain says and the bill says it isn't that you couldn't run those ads but that if you did, money you used to pay for them would have to be regulated just the way a candidate's campaign ad money is. Why is that--
LAURA MURPHY: Or like a PAC.
MARGARET WARNER: Or like a PAC, political action committee. Why is that a violation of the First Amendment?
LAURA MURPHY: Well, why should we have to change our tax status, change the structure of our institutions in order to comment on issues that we work on year-round? Why is it that when something like the partial--the late-term abortion issue, for example, comes close to an election we are barred from talking about it with our 501C-3 or 501C-4 moneys?
MARGARET WARNER: Those are two different kinds of tax status.
LAURA MURPHY: That's right. Why should we jeopardize our tax status with the IRS in order to participate in public debate over issues? This is a--this has a chilling effect on groups. They will be afraid of being dragged into court by the FEC. And during the last 25 years the ACLU now, the main Right to Life Committee, all kinds of organizations have been drawn into court by the FEC because they don't like our voter guides, because they don't like our ads calling for the defeat of certain legislation, because it may impact an election. So basically the Congress is trying to create a hermetically sealed environment so that everybody who talks about candidates fits in with regulation. And we don't think that that is permissible in a free society that enjoys the First Amendment. The First Amendment was created so that people had the right to criticize government and elected officials.
MARGARET WARNER: Randy Tate, how do you see this bill and how it would affect organizations like yours?
RANDY TATE, Christian Coalition: I would agree, it will have a chilling effect, and it's clearly unconstitutional. The courts declared and have numerous times that those groups like ours that do not engage in express advocacy, say and vote for or against or elect or don't support a particular candidates, can engage in what's called issue advocacy. This bill would end issue advocacy. Let me give you an example. I have with me what's called a scorecard. Under this restriction of 60 days a candidate who has a primary, running unopposed in the month of May, we would be prohibited for numerous--two months from distributing these voter guides to the broad public because they would mention a candidate. And so we would be restricted from sending out action alerts to our members into a broader cross-section of the community to let them know where a particular member of Congress, regarding an issue that's coming up before Congress, if there's a vote on partial birth abortion, as was mentioned before on the tax cuts, we wouldn't be able to do it. I don't think that we should let the citizen's voice be silenced and leave it up to the pundits, the politicians, or political action committees to determine what the public debate is going to be. I think everyday citizens should be able to petition our government, talk to their legislators, educate their neighbors to have an impact on their government.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. But let me ask you essentially the same question I asked Laura Murphy, which is that the proponents of this bill say you could still do that, you could still mention a candidate in your voter guide, but the money you raised to do that would have to be disclosed, the contributors would have to be disclosed, and there will be limits, the same limits that now apply to candidates. Why is that too onerous?
RANDY TATE: Well, it's onerous for a number of reasons. It would restrict small organizations, for example, of setting up a political action committee. If you've ever set up a political action committee, you need several attorneys, a couple of CPA's, piles of paper work, and it would have a chilling effect on everyday citizens trying to organize their neighborhood to have an impact on their local member of Congress. We're an issues-oriented organization. We do not support or oppose any particular candidate. We don't see ourselves as a political action committee, and what we find considerably offensive is the fact that we would have to get permission from our elected officials to hold our elected officials accountable. And we find that a clear violation of the First Amendment in our ability to come together and to speak out for or against issues that our members and the public at large feel very strongly about.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Laura Murphy, this really gets to the nub of I guess the differences between you all and say Senator McCain. He says a lot of these aren't issue ads--an example--that that's sort of a bogus term. An example he used was that labor, he said, spent $2 million to run ads against Congressman J. D. Heyworth in the 6th district of Arizona saying he was just a horrible man and a horrible congressman. And Sen. McCain said, you know, that wasn't an issue ad, that was a candidate ad, in this case an anti-candidate ad, and so it should be regulated just like candidate ads are.
LAURA MURPHY: Well, that's a common complaint, but the truth is that whatever that ad said, somebody wanted to say something about Congressman Heyworth, and they had a right to say it, and they had a right--they have a right to say it whenever they feel like saying it, and just because it has an influence on the outcome of an election doesn't mean that the FEC has the right to regulate it. But I wanted to get back to an earlier point you made about why is this so burdensome. We have anonymous contributors to the ACLU, but they could not be anonymous contributors to a PAC. A PAC limits a contribution to the organization to $5,000 annually. If someone wants to give the ACLU $50,000, they are committed to do that under current law, but if we convert to a PAC, their limits on contributions to the PAC, they have to be fully disclosed. Again, there are enormous bookkeeping and paperwork requirements. And not everybody who is a member of the ACLU would either support the creation of a PAC, or would they want to be members of a PAC. So there might be a significant drop-off. Yet, we all are concerned about civil liberties, all of our members. So you're really requiring us to force voices in a certain way during--in a highly regulated environment that really is burdensome to organizations, especially grassroots organizations. The people who have been brought into court by the FEC have been small organizations. We got into this because three elderly people came into the office of the ACLU because they wanted to run a full-page ad in the New York Times opposing Richard Nixon and the bombing of Vietnam and in Cambodia. And they listed an honor roll of Congress people, including Senator George McGovern in 1972, who refused to support the bombing of Cambodia. And the FEC said, oh, no, this is political speech. This may influence the outcome of the election. And what these people were trying to do was influence the fate of the Vietnam War. So who's going to decide, who's going to sit there? It's going to be the FEC looking at the content of the ad to determine whether or not it can go forward.
RANDY TATE: A couple of points, if I may, on that.
LAURA MURPHY: Please.
RANDY TATE: That I think are important to make. Under this particular bill if an outside organization runs, for example, an ad in the paper, I'm talking about the issue of partial birth abortions, if that is a highly debated issue in that particular campaign within 60 days of the election, that could be construed as an indirect contribution to one of the candidates, depending on which side this particular organization is aligned. We think that's outrageous. I don't think we should turn over our free speech rights to the speech police, the Federal Elections Commission. And I think it's important to point out, as well, that every major case or every major decision by the FEC that restricted free speech rights the courts have overruled because they've been a very huge infringement on everyday citizens trying to have an impact on their government.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Tate, let me also ask--I should have mentioned this earlier when you held up your Christian Coalition Voter Guide--now, Sen. McCain said on the floor of the Senate explicitly it wouldn't cover voter guides. You're not reassured by that?
RANDY TATE: No, absolutely not. The restriction is a ruse. It is phony. Once again, we shouldn't have to get permission from the elected to allow the citizens to hold their elected officials accountable for their record. And it creates an incredible set of regulations and hoops that you want to jump through. I mean, to pass out one of these voter guides like was passed out in South Carolina all it states is who the candidates are, what the issues are, and where they stand. There's no vote for this candidate or vote against that candidate. I don't believe we have to go to our government to get permission to be able to exercise what our founding fathers thought was an important part of being an American citizen. And that is your ability to engage in free speech, talk about your elected officials. And I don't think we should leave it up to the media. I don't think we should leave it up to the politicians, and I don't think we should leave it up to the political action committees to be the only ones engaged in free speech. This will have a chilling effect if this bill passes. It is a serious threat to our constitutional rights.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you very much, both of you.