Gingrich Would End Contribution CapsBy John E. Yang and Helen Dewar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 26, 1997; Page A14
As the Senate suddenly prepared to begin debate today on a bill that would put new restrictions on campaign fund-raising, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said the House likely will vote on its own bill later this fall and that he favors one that removes restrictions on giving.
In a surprise move, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) announced late yesterday that the Senate will take up the issue today, several weeks before many senators had expected, and indicated that votes are likely to begin on Oct. 6 or 7.
The Senate will consider a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) that includes a ban on unregulated "soft money." There also will be an as-yet unspecific Republican substitute bill or amendments that probably will include curbs on use of union dues for political purposes.
Though caught off-guard by Lott's move, McCain as well as Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) had praise for the step. "We now have a meaningful shot at passing campaign finance reform in this session of Congress," Daschle said.
Gingrich was not specific about a timetable for action on his side of Capitol Hill, but he made clear the hard road any campaign finance measure is likely to face before it has a chance of emerging as legislation. In the fullest public discussion of his own views on the subject, the speaker took a position nearly the polar opposite from McCain-Feingold by calling for more, not less, campaign money and for public disclosure rather than federal regulation to disinfect the process.
Gingrich backed legislation proposed by Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.) that would repeal the decades-old limits on campaign giving and allow individuals and political action committees, or PACs, to give unlimited sums to parties and candidates. To make disclosure of contributors more timely, Doolittle's legislation would require campaigns to file reports electronically and to file them each day during the three months before an election.
"It gives you direct accountability," Gingrich said of the legislation. "Individual citizens have unlimited free speech. . . . That's the American model."
But that approach is strongly opposed by leading House Republican advocates of campaign finance reform. "It would bring us back into the dark ages as far as the financing of our elections," said Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), who has led a bipartisan group of first-term lawmakers studying the issue.
"Limits are an absolutely integral part of reform," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who has pressed an approach that closely tracks the Senate legislation.
Gingrich said McCain-Feingold is "the wrong model headed in the wrong direction. . . . I do not think it would pass the House."
"We have starved political dialogue in America down to 30-second attacks ads," Gingrich said. "If you have enough resources on both sides, you can actually communicate rationally. . . . A commercial in the Super Bowl costs $1.2 million. That's two congressional campaigns under McCain-Feingold. Do you truly believe a congressional campaign is worth 15 seconds?"
Gingrich also backed a proposal by freshman Rep. Robert W. Schaffer (R-Colo.) that would require corporations and labor unions to get prior authorization from employees and union members before using their dues, fees or other payroll deductions for political purposes.
And he endorsed a measure from Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.) that would allow state and local election officials to check Social Security and Immigration and Naturalization Service records to see if people seeking to register to vote are U.S. citizens.
In a freewheeling breakfast discussion with reporters, Gingrich charged that last year's Democratic presidential and congressional races were campaigns "of illegality and illegitimacy." As a result, he said, "congressional seats were tainted, where they were won with illegal votes, they were won with illegal money. . . . This was not some small trivial thing about phone calls from the White House. There was a pattern of illegality and illegitimacy throughout this campaign in a way that the more we learn, the more astonishing it is."
Also yesterday, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee continued its leisurely examination of how the current complex system of campaign finance laws evolved and the Federal Election Commission's ability to enforce those laws.
Trevor Potter, a former FEC chairman, and Lawrence M. Noble, the agency's general counsel, both said the FEC budget of about $30 million should be increased to help it catch up with a growing enforcement burden. According to Noble, the FEC is currently pursuing only about one-third of its pending enforcement cases.
The call for a stronger FEC was endorsed by two other witnesses, Anthony Corrado, professor of government at Colby College in Maine, and Daniel R. Ortiz, a University of Virginia Law School professor. But they also zeroed in on the rise of "issue advocacy" advertising in political campaigns that are outside federal regulation and that Ortiz described as "the most serious problem" in the campaign financing system.
"To anyone interested in campaign finance reform, issue advocacy is the 800-pound gorilla," Ortiz said. "Without taming it, campaign finance reform no matter how thoroughly it addresses public funding, soft money, political action committee spending or any other perceived problems will come to naught. Issue advocacy represents a huge, gaping loophole of last resort."
Corrado said that for 1996 the two major political parties raised and spent more than $271 million in soft money, which is not supposed to be used directly in a candidate's campaign; that was more than 12 times the soft money expenditures in 1984.
Staff writer Edward Walsh contributed to this report.
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