As the Senate on Friday began debating campaign finance reform legislation fueled by scandals involving both political parties, heated rhetoric quickly made clear that prospects of change are far from certain.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., opened the debate by declaring that the price of passing a reform package must include curbs on a major money source for Democratic causes - American labor unions. Lott insisted that the “essential first step” to reform must be a ban on unions using mandatory dues for political contributions without a member’s authorization.
More than any of the numerous contentious issues surrounding campaign finance reform, the coming GOP attempt to limit union contributions looms as the major barrier. Democrats long have called such a move “a poison pill” that would cause them to balk at supporting the reform bill, co-sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell D. Feingold, D-Wis.
The McCain-Feingold bill would require only that labor groups notify employees they represent but have not formally joined the union - in most cases, a relatively small number - that they are entitled to a refund of the portion of their “agency” fees used for political purposes. Unions already operate under this procedure.
In his remarks, Lott also struck an unusually partisan and personal note, saying President Clinton has no credibility on the issue because controversial fund-raising practices used by his 1996 campaign is “a case study of the problem, not an exemplar of the solution.”
But McCain said both parties are guilty of campaign fund-raising abuses and irregularities that cry out for systemic reform.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., called for a “sincere, bipartisan effort to clean up our own house,” adding: “The American people are not dumb. They know the system is broken.”
Clinton, for his part, said in a speech in Houston he was delighted the debate had begun, but he said voters needed to make themselves heard in order for reforms to pass. “There will be a lot of efforts to make it look like we’re going to do something and nothing will happen, unless we all work hard and demand that something happen,” he said.
Advocates of change got a boost minutes before the Senate debate began as Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., became the 49th member to express support for the McCain-Feingold bill.
Some pro-reform House members, including leaders of a bipartisan freshmen’s task force on the issue, conceded that the chamber is unlikely to act unless the Senate first passes a bill. No votes in the Senate are expected until early October, according to Lott. He plans to interrupt the debate to enable the Senate to finish action on the 13 appropriations bills that fund government operations.
The McCain-Feingold bill’s centerpiece is a ban on “soft money” - largely unregulated donations to political parties that often are channeled to individual campaigns.
Such funds are at the center of current investigations into irregularities during last year’s campaigns. And already this year, a record $34 million in soft money have been collected by political parties in the first six months - a 250 percent increase over the same, post-presidential election period in 1993.
xxxx CAMPAIGN FINANCE BILL The Senate’s campaign finance overhaul legislation would: Ban unlimited donations of “soft money” - funds that are supposed to be used for party-building purposes rather than for specific candidates. More clearly delineate whether advocacy groups are supporting issues or candidates, and subject expenditures for candidate support to federal election laws. Require quicker, better campaign contribution and spending disclosures and increase penalties for violations. Bar political parties from spending for candidates who don’t limit personal spending to $50,000 on their own election. Require labor unions to tell nonunion members they can get refunds on fees used for political purposes.