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House Panel Backs Immunity for 3 in Campaign Probe (Sept. 25)

Campaign Finance Overhaul Efforts Advance in Congress, Industry

By Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 25, 1997; Page A08

The long-stalled effort to rework the nation's campaign finance laws gained momentum on several fronts yesterday.

Senate Democrats, who previously endorsed a broad campaign finance bill that included spending limits, said they will back a narrower version that focuses mainly on banning unregulated "soft money" in hopes that it will garner enough support to pass.

In the House, Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) said he expected that campaign finance legislation would be considered before lawmakers quit for the year, though he offered no specifics or timetable.

And a group of business leaders, including some major donors, followed the lead of the nation's largest union organization and called on Congress to ban soft money, the unlimited political contributions from individuals, corporations and labor unions.

Responding to the pared-down bill that Senate leaders have agreed to bring to the floor, probably next month, Democrats said in a letter to Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), "While we are disappointed the changes were deemed necessary . . . we, nevertheless, remain determined to seize this opportunity for reform."

In the letter they also called on Republicans to "deliver a handful of votes" necessary to pass the legislation.

The letter appeared aimed at clearing up any questions about whether all 45 Democrats would support the scaled-back version that Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) are pushing in order to pick up more support from Republicans who oppose spending limits and other aspects of their original bill. So far the bill has only three announced Republican supporters.

In the House, Armey's remarks came as Democrats escalated their protests over the failure by GOP leaders to schedule any campaign finance bills for floor debate. Democrats delayed legislative work by demanding roll-call votes on routine motions with increasing frequency.

"It is my expectation," Armey said, "that we will have something on the floor this fall. I just can't tell you what the configuration of that would be, nor can I tell you the timing."

Meanwhile, a group of business leaders led by investment banker Jerome Kohlberg said AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney's call this week for an end to soft money was a significant step forward. "This is the first time the business community and labor unions have come to the same point," he said.

Kohlberg, who gave $100,000 in soft money to the Democratic Party in 1988 and $150,000 in 1992, said he stopped such giving and founded the Campaign Reform Project three years ago after becoming "concerned if not disgusted with what I saw happening."

He has since recruited 24 other top executives or former executives to join his cause. "They're sick and tired of being dunned" for contributions, Kohlberg said at a press briefing. "They can see that this is undermining our very democracy."

The group includes Berkshire Hathaway Inc. chairman Warren E. Buffett, Sara Lee Corp. chairman John H. Bryan, former Quaker Oats Co. chairman Robert D. Stuart Jr. and former Merck & Co. chairman P. Roy Vagelos.

Another member of Kohlberg's advisory council, former Bank of America chairman Richard Rosenberg, acknowledged that it was difficult to persuade current chief executives to sign on. "They're not sure they have the right to put their company out of touch or out of access to congressional leaders," he said. His former company gave about $545,000 in soft money donations in the last election cycle, according to figures compiled by Common Cause.

Former Capital Cities/ABC chairman Thomas S. Murphy said the AFL-CIO's stance should "make it a lot easier for active CEOs" who had been fearful of being outgunned by union dollars to support a soft money ban. Capital Cities' parent company, the Walt Disney Co., and related entities gave more than $1.2 million in soft money for the 1996 elections.

While a few companies, notably General Motors Corp., AlliedSignal Inc. and Monsanto Co., have declared that they will no longer give soft money, overall soft money contributions are growing, not diminishing. Federal Election Commission figures show that both parties continued to raise record sums of soft money in the first six months of 1997, with Republicans taking in $21.7 million and Democrats $13.7 million.

Bill Noack of General Motors said the company, which gave about $300,000 in soft money in the last campaign cycle, decided to stop such contributions because "there's too much money in politics." He said GM had not felt any repercussions. "We're the biggest company in the world and we represent a lot of jobs and a lot of taxes," he said.

Staff writers Helen Dewar and John E. Yang contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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