Below Zero: The Prospects For Reform
By Dwight L. Morris
No matter which party wins control of the House, the Senate and the White House next week, there is one thing you can be absolutely sure of. There will be no substantive campaign finance reform in 1997 or 1998. While those in power will want it far less than those seeking power, it is clear that neither party wants campaign finance reform, election-year pandering aside.
This week, when the Democratic National Committee announced that it would not file a pre-election financial report with the Federal Election Commission, it openly flouted the spirit of campaign finance laws. The DNC initially justified its decision by making the patently absurd claim that it spent nothing, not even a dollar, during the first two weeks of October to directly support the candidacies of President Clinton or any of its House and Senate candidates. This excuse has been used in the past by the Democrats' opponents Newt Gingrich's GOPAC for instance, but it would be the first time that a major party used it to fail to file a pre-election report. Under intense pressure, the DNC finally reversed itself, agreeing to a full disclosure before the election.
California Republican Rep. John T. Doolittle summed up the majority view on both sides of the aisle in 1996 when he argued that Republicans seeking reform were naive at best and committing political suicide at worst. "Some of our members are under the misguided impression that somehow this is a positive campaign issue for them," Doolittle declared. "I think it's a stupid idea." Or, as another Republican member put it in a confidential report on campaign finance reform that was leaked to the press last January, "I've never seen folks in the majority work so hard to return to the minority."
Promises, promises ...
In June 1995, President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich publicly agreed to establish a "blue ribbon" panel on campaign reform. Nearly eighteen months later, there is still no sign of a panel.
In August 1995, presumably with the full knowledge and blessing of the president, the Democratic National Committee began using millions of dollars in so-called soft money (money that is supposed to be used only for "party-building" efforts) to fund "voter education" commercials that were nothing less than poorly disguised campaign spots touting his accomplishments in office.
By using soft money to fund the ads, the DNC violated the spirit, if not the letter, of laws banning direct contributions to federal campaigns by corporations and labor unions. While the development of political action committees had punched gaping holes in that ban, the DNC's bold move to use soft-money in what amounted to direct support of a candidate rendered the prohibition completely meaningless.
A champion of campaign finance reform while seeking the presidency, Bill Clinton now presides over a party fund-raising apparatus that accepted an illegal $250,000 contribution from Cheong Am America, Inc. The newly established American subsidiary of a South Korean electronics company had not officially established operations in the United States at the time it made the donation using money supplied by its South Korean parent a violation of federal law banning donations from foreign nationals or corporations. The contribution was returned last month only after the Los Angeles Times began asking questions about its legality. Several weeks later the Republican National Committee was forced to return an illegal $15,000 donation made by a Canadian firm after Roll Call, a bi-weekly newspaper dedicated to covering Congress, asked questions about the contribution's origin.
An Institutional Joke
A few lonely soles on both sides of the aisle stepped forward in 1995 and 1996 to make yet another push for reform. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.), Russell D. Feingold (D-Wisc.), and Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) co-sponsored a bill that would have banned PACs, provided candidates who agreed to abide by spending limits with reduced rates for broadcast advertising and mail, and outlawed soft money donations. Fearful that the proposals might somehow become law, RNC chairman Haley Barbour implored McCain to reconsider. In a 10-page letter to McCain, Barbour argued that the bill would shut off the party's cash spigot, making it impossible for the national party to effectively support its candidates. While Barbour couldn't turn McCain around, he had no trouble securing sufficient support to stop the bill from coming to a vote. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stepped forward with a threat to filibuster the bill.
Worried that the bill's language would render their "non-partisan" voter guides illegal, the Christian Coalition and the National Right to Life Committee lobbied hard to defeat the bill a message that was not lost on the Republicans who routinely benefit from their clearly partisan electioneering efforts. With newly installed Majority Leader Trent Lott leading the charge, all attempts to force cloture and bring the bill to the floor for a vote fell short.
In the House, the Republican leadership beat back proposals to ban PACs and soft money, provide deep discounts on television advertising and mailing rates for those agreeing to abide by a $600,000 spending cap, and tighten disclosure requirements for so-called "independent" campaigns by business and labor interests. When Republican Reps. Linda Smith (Wash.) and Christopher Shays (Conn.) joined forces with Democrat Martin T. Meehan (Mass.) to push legislation that would also have prohibited fundraising within a 50-mile radius of the Capitol (except for members who represented the area), it went nowhere.
Assuming a $600,000 voluntary spending cap were ever passed, it would barely impact the process. Only about 20 percent of all House candidates since 1990 have spent as much as $600,000, and many of those were self-financed candidates like Republican Gene Fontenot, who spent more than $2 million of his own money on an unsuccessful bid in 1994 to capture the open seat in Texas' 25th District.
Why would Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) agree to a $600,000 spending cap to get cut-rate advertising when in 1994 he spent $1,484,104 but invested just $41,876 in radio commercials (no TV ads in the expensive New York city market)? Among Rangel's outlays that year were $54,529 in donations to local Democratic party organizations, $37,750 in donations to local candidates, and charitable donations totaling $46,185. Rangel also spent $13,488 on his campaign car.
This article originally appeared on the PoliticsNow Web site.
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