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Sen. Mitch Mcconnell

The U.S. Senate voted Monday to approve the McCain-Feingold campaign finance package. Jim Lehrer talks with the legislation's chief opponent, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Now to the chief Senate opponent, Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky. Senator McConnell, welcome. I offered congratulations to Senator McCain. Is condolences what I should offer to you? Is that how you feel about it?

  • SEN. MITCH McCONNELL:

    Well, maybe conditional condolences. We had 41 votes against the bill, Jim, 10 more than the proponents of the legislation were predicting. I think should this legislation look like it does at the end… Like it currently does at the end and if the president should find it unacceptable, there are way more than enough votes to sustain a veto, not that I'm predicting a veto, you understand. Clearly the message today is the votes would be there if a veto is forthcoming.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Do you think the president should veto it?

  • SEN. MITCH McCONNELL:

    If it looks like it does today that would be my recommendation. There won't be a penny less spent on politics in the next cycle after this bill. What it does is take a good deal of resources away from the great national parties used to support challengers who have a hard time succeeding and basically transfer that money to the outside. All of these interest groups in a country which has a budget of $2 trillion a year want to have some influence on the process, if they can't give to the parties they'll simply go out and do their own issue advocacy and the efforts in the bill, Jim, to make it impossible for people… groups to engage in issue advocacy in proximity to an election have no chance of being upheld in the courts. There have been 21 cases in the last 26 years arising out of state and local efforts to restrict issue advocacy in proximity to an election. All of them have been struck down. So I don't think there's any chance that that would be upheld.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Go to the question that I asked Senator McCain. How does this affect the average American? Let's assume for discussion purposes that it does become the law of the land. Who gets hurt?

  • SEN. MITCH McCONNELL:

    It has no impact whatsoever on the average American. It's an inside the Beltway issue. The interest groups that lobby here, which they have a right to do under the First amendment, will simply spend their money trying to influence elections in a different way than they do now, which is to contribute to the two great political parties. I don't think a bill that destroys the effectiveness of the political parties is a step in the right direction. If we had wanted to deal with the so-called appearance of corruption, what we would have done, Jim, is to cap non-federal money, soft money. There's nothing inherently evil about it. But what we've chosen is the route they decided with alcohol in the '30s, prohibition instead of moderation. What we should have done if we were concerned about the very large contributions was to cap them. It's worthy of note that last year the average soft money contribution, nonfederal contribution, to the Republican Senatorial Committee was $520, which represented about one-tenth of 1 percent of the nonfederal money that we raised. Even the biggest contribution, $250,000 represented about one half of one percent of what we received so what we could have done was to cap those. Instead we decided to try to abolish it altogether.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Senator, you've been making the same argument against this bill for several years and you've always won until today. What happened? What changed? I mean, you talk about the 41 who were with you but there were 59 who were against you. What's happened?

  • SEN. MITCH McCONNELL:

    Well, what's happened is there are fewer opponents in the Senate and we have a different administration. You know, I'm confident that at some point the administration will begin to negotiate with the Congress and hopefully we can come up with a bill that would actually improve the system. There's one very positive feature in this bill, and that is an effort to at least partially index the hard money limits, which were set….

  • JIM LEHRER:

    That's the money – for people don't follow this. That's the money that goes directly to candidates.

  • SEN. MITCH McCONNELL:

    Right. The contribution limits on that were set in the mid '70s when a Mustang cost $2,700. And of course campaign inflation has gone up dramatically. And the impact of that on candidates is they have to spend way more time raising money than they should. So that's a good feature of the bill. I wish we could have passed that and I wish we could have put a cap on nonfederal money. That would have been a sensible piece of legislation.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Senator Feingold said on the floor of the Senate this afternoon that this was a momentous event that was happening today. Do you agree, from a negative stand… he was talking in positive terms obviously. From a negative point of view the way you see it, was it a momentous event?

  • SEN. MITCH McCONNELL:

    Well it was certainly a momentous event for John McCain and Russ Feingold who have been identified with this issue a great deal and it was a momentous event for the political parties whose influence and ability to help candidates will be dramatically reduced by this. But if you're talking about the overall goal that some people have of too much money in politics it will have zero impact on that. All of this money will still be spent trying to influence policy and elections. Frankly I think it should be — I don't object to that.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    What about Senator McCain's point that he just made — that this is going to encourage more citizen participation and young people are going to want to get more involved in the political process — you don't see that happening?

  • SEN. MITCH McCONNELL:

    There's no evidence of that whatsoever. In Japan, for example, unburdened by the First Amendment, they have squeezed all the money out of politics. They now allow their candidates for the parliament over there, the Diet, they restrict how many times they can speak, where they can speak, how long they can speak, how many handbills they can distribute and how many megaphones they get. By the way they're allowed one megaphone each – this all in an effort to squeeze the money out of politics. What's happened, Jim, interestingly enough is the disapproval of the Diet has gone up 70 percent and turnout has continued to decline. A number of European countries have tried the same kinds of reforms. It's no impact whatsoever on the public perception of the congresses, the legislatures. What people want us to do is grapple with real problems. And I've often said — somewhat with a smile on my face — that this issue for average Americans ranks right up there with static cling as an issue of concern to them.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Do you still feel that way?

  • SEN. MITCH McCONNELL:

    I still feel that way.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Why? Why do you feel that way?

  • SEN. MITCH McCONNELL:

    Because the polls are clear. And you can put this issue on any set of issues. And it always comes in dead last. People do not care about this issue. And so if you acted on this issue in the way that the reform industry would have us act, it won't produce any reaction from the voters because they're inherently uninterested in it.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Why would 59 United States Senators vote the way they did today, if the people who vote for them don't care about it?

  • SEN. MITCH McCONNELL:

    The New York Times and The Washington Post editorial pages care deeply bit. They have opined on this subject once every six days over the last 24 months. They have an enormous influence here inside the Beltway. This whole thing is conducted inside the Beltway, Jim. The influence of those two editorial pages banging away everyday has a dramatic impact on the Democratic Conference and on some Republicans as well. These are, of course, the biggest special interests in America. And the bills always specifically exempt the media. I'm not saying that we ought to get rid of the media exemption. I just resent the fact that they're always preaching to everybody else that everyone else's money and influence is somehow bad. The other crowd involved in promoting this are some of the billionaires like Jerome Coleberg (ph) who have sort of the Ross Perot view of money and politics, which is that everybody's money in politics is bad except theirs.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    So —

  • SEN. MITCH McCONNELL:

    This is… I'm sorry.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    No, go ahead. Finish. I'm sorry to interrupt.

  • SEN. MITCH McCONNELL:

    My only point is that's a pretty powerful bunch of proponents and lots of people on the payroll. They've been hanging around off the Senate floor like all good lobbyists do. And they've had a pretty formidable force. In spite of that, we had a solid 41 votes against this bill and if it subsequently is vetoed, if the president decides it's not a good bill, the votes will be there to sustain the veto.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    You said going in that if the Senate did what it did today it would be stunningly stupid to do so..

  • SEN. MITCH McCONNELL:

    It was.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Do you still feel that way?

  • SEN. MITCH McCONNELL:

    Yes. It's stunning stupid. Why would anybody think that reducing the influence of the two great political parties is a good idea, a terrible idea.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Senator McConnell, thank you very much.

  • SEN. MITCH McCONNELL:

    Thank you, Jim.

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