Campaign Finance Reform Headed for President's Signature

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, March 21, 2002 (ENS) - The U.S. Senate voted Wednesday to radically overhaul the nation's campaign finance rules, sharply limiting the amount of money that corporations and special interests will be able to contribute to candidates. The bill, already passed by the House, now heads to the desk of President George W. Bush, who has said he will sign the legislation.

Conservation groups say the legislation will stem the flow of money spent by polluting corporations seeking to influence policymakers and blunt the effects of environmental laws.

With a 60 to 40 vote, the Senate ended a seven year battle to limit the use of so called soft money - huge, unlimited and unreported donations from corporations and wealthy individuals. The bipartisan reform measure was first introduced in 1995 by Senators John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, but its passage was blocked repeatedly by the bill's largely Republican opponents.

Feingold McCain

Senators Russ Feingold (left) and John McCain worked for seven years to pass campaign finance reform. (Photo courtesy Office of Senator Feingold)
"This legislation will provide much needed reform of our federal election campaign laws," said Senator McCain in a floor statement on Wednesday. "With the stroke of the President's pen, we will eliminate hundreds of millions of dollars of unregulated soft money that has caused Americans to question the integrity of their elected representatives. This is a good bill, it is a legally sound bill, and it is a fair bill that benefits neither party, but that profits our political system and that will, I hope, help to restore the public's faith in government."

The measure would bar individuals, corporations and unions from contributing unlimited sums to national political parties. In the 2000 elections, such soft money donations reached a record of almost $500 million.

Soft money is legally allowed to be used only for party building activities such as constructing office space, or supporting "get out the vote" campaigns. But in recent years, millions of dollars in soft money has been increasingly used to influence federal elections by funding ad campaigns and other political maneuvering.

The bill passed Wednesday would make it illegal to use soft money to broadcast so called "issue ads," that attack a particular candidate or political issue, shortly before an election. Ads running on radio or television within 60 days of a general election, or 30 days of a primary election, will have to be paid for with so called hard money, donated to a candidate or a political action committee.

The bill raises limits on hard money donations, allowing individuals to give up to $2,000 per year to Congressional or presidential candidates - double the current limit set in 1974 of $1,000 - and up to $25,000 to a political party. These caps would be raised in future years to compensate for inflation.

Individuals could give a total of $95,000 to all federal candidates and political parties over each two year election cycle.

Soft money donations to local and state parties would be limited to $10,000 per year, up from the current limit of $5,000, and these funds could not be used to fund broadcast ads for federal candidates.

To reduce the monetary advantage held by wealthy, self financing candidates, contribution limits would be increased for candidates facing such opponents.

President Bush, who opposed the bill during his campaign for the presidency, said in a statement Wednesday that he will sign the measure.

"I support common sense reforms to end abuses in our campaign finance system," Bush said. "The reforms passed today, while flawed in some areas, still improve the current system overall, and I will sign them into law."

However, Bush added that the bill "does present some legitimate constitutional questions," and some legislators plan to attack the bill in court, after the president signs it, on the grounds that it inhibits free speech.


Senator Mitch McConnell, who served as a teller for the electoral college vote count in the 2000 election, vowed to fight the legislation in court. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Senator Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has led the opposition to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill since 1995.

"This wholesale regulation of every action of every American anytime there is a federal election is truly unprecedented," McConnell said Wednesday, vowing to lead efforts to have the law declared illegal.

That is what happened the last time Congress attempted to enact contribution and spending limits on elections in the 1970s, after the Watergate scandal that ended in the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. The Supreme Court struck down most of the limits on spending by candidates and political parties, finding them to be an infringement on the free speech guarantees of the Constitution.

However, the Supreme Court allowed limits on contributions, which are the focus of the current bill. In addition, the current bill includes a measure intended to protect it from a court review: the court can strike down one provision of the bill without invalidating the entire law.

Still, "today is not the end," said Senator McConnell. "There is litigation ahead."

The Sierra Club, one of the nation's most prominent conservation groups, said the finance reform bill will help to protect the environment, because polluting industries will no longer be permitted to dump unlimited amounts of money into influencing elections.

"Americans understand the connection between a clean environment and clean elections and don't want to see our clean air or drinking water safeguards sold to the highest bidder," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "We applaud those Senators and Representatives who joined together to approve campaign finance reform and voted to get piles of polluters' cash out of our elections."

Pope noted that the oil and gas industries, including the now bankrupt Enron, donated more than $32 million to candidates and political parties in the last election. The Bush administration has since proposed energy policies that would provide millions in subsidies to the energy industry.

Senators who have received large contributions from the auto industry led last week's defeat of a bill mandating higher fuel economy standards for cars, sport utility vehicles and other light trucks, Pope added.

"Now, more than ever, Americans don't want their elected officials beholden to polluters," Pope said. "Instead of answering to big campaign donors, elected officials should answer to voters. Americans want to get big money out of elections so their voices can be heard, rather than allowing big energy companies to buy excessive influence. A check should not buy one's place at the table."


Senator Phil Gramm calls the bill an abridgement of free speech rights. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
But opponents of the campaign finance reform bill said the measure will simply shift areas of influence to unregulated groups that are not associated with political parties, which face fewer rules regarding the disclosure of contributions and spending.

Jim Tate, vice president of the National Right to Work Committee, said the bill will encourage the use of compulsory union dues to finance the political machinations of labor unions, such as telephone and mail campaigns for union friendly candidates.

Senator Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican and a longtime opponent of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform effort, said the bill will offer an advantage to groups able to finance their own political efforts.

"We are not taking away political influence at all," Gramm said, gesturing with a copy of the Constitution. "We are redistributing political influence. Who are we taking it away from? We are taking it away from people who are willing and able to use their money to enhance their free speech guaranteed by the Constitution."