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McConnell and Lautenberg on Campaign Finance

Sunday, March 1, 1998; Page C05


The main campaign finance bill, sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), failed to gain enough support last week to overcome a threatened filibuster in the Senate. Both supporters and opponents declared the bill all but dead for this year. Following are excerpts from Thursday's final debate, in which Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) explained his strong opposition to the bill and Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) his strong support.

Sen. McConnell:

We come to the end of the most recent round of debate on whether to put the government in charge of political speech of individuals, candidates and parties. I think it is important to talk a little bit about the philosophy that divides us on this issue.

My good friends on the other side of the aisle look at America as a seething cauldron of people who are trying to make us do bad things. We, on the other hand, take the approach to this that James Madison did. James Madison, the author of the First Amendment, understood that America would, in fact, be a cauldron, a cauldron of special interests. But special interests in Madison's views, or factions, as he put it, would be people who would be guaranteed a right to have some influence, that it was totally American -- expected, anticipated and necessary -- in a democracy to allow people to have influence.

After all, who are we trying to wall ourselves off from? People who want to contribute to our campaigns, limit and disclose amounts of their hard-earned money because they believe in what we are doing? What could conceivably be wrong with that? In fact, it is as American as apple pie. Not only is it the right thing for our people, it is the constitutionally protected thing for our country.

The Supreme Court has made it abundantly clear, abundantly clear that unless you have the ability to amplify your voice in a country of 260 to 270 million people, you don't have much speech. Dan Rather has a lot of speech, Tom Brokaw has a lot of speech, the editorial page of The Washington Post has a lot of speech, but your average American citizen, unless that person can amplify his voice, doesn't have much speech. So the court said [campaign] spending is speech and the First Amendment applies to individuals, groups, candidates and parties, as well as applying to the press. A stunning thing for the press to observe, that we have free speech rights as well. They don't like it. They would like to have more power, not less. They would like to control our campaigns, control the discourse in the course of the campaign that goes on and control the outcome with their editorial endorsement. But the First Amendment doesn't allow them to control the political process. . . .

The court made the point that if you say somebody is free to speak but then say they can only speak so much, they are not very free to speak. They said it would be about like saying you are free to travel, but you can only spend $100. How free are you? I wonder how our friends at The Washington Post and New York Times would feel if we said: You are free to say anything you want, but your circulation is now limited to 2,500 or 10,000. They would say: You are interfering with our speech because we can't amplify our speech. . . .

Our good friends on the other side of the aisle say, well, we are spending too much. Compared to what? It's about what the public spent on bubble gum last cycle. There was an increase in spending because the stakes were big. A lot of people cared about what happened in the 1996 election. There was a struggle for the White House and a struggle for the Congress and a struggle over the future of America. A lot of people cared about that and they got involved. They wrote their checks out and gave it to their favorite party or candidate. Some groups came out and said how they felt about it, which they have a constitutional right to do, as well, under the First Amendment. Many of our colleagues on the other side of the aisle were appalled; all this speech was polluting the process, they said.

I think all that speech was invigorating the process. When there is not much speech in a campaign, not much spending in a campaign, it is a sleepy campaign with no competition. Typically, statistically, it is a lower turnout election when there is no interest. So there is nothing offensive, nothing improper and nothing to be condemned when you look at a heavily contested election in which large quantities of money are spent. . . .

What kind of country would we have if all of these people in our land were unable to influence the political process? We would have an unresponsive democracy, a government run by elitists who want to shut everybody up. Fortunately, the courts are never going to allow that to happen. This Senate is never going to allow it to happen, because we are not going to go down the road of regulating people out of the political process because we don't like either the quantity or the quality of their speech. I have heard it said off and on over the last few days about these polluting issue ad campaigns, these sham campaigns. Who is to decide whose speech is worthy and whose speech is not? The Supreme Court made it clear that the government is not going to allow us here to decide whose speech is worthy and whose speech is not. The First Amendment doesn't allow us the latitude to categorize certain kinds of speech as offensive and other kinds of speech as laudable. . . .

We don't own these campaigns. It is not our right to shut these citizens up, no matter how much it may irritate us. The good thing about what is going to happen in a few minutes is that those people's ability to participate is going to be preserved. We are not going to take that away. We are going to kill a bill that richly deserves to be killed. We are going to do it proudly and unapologetically.

Sen. Lautenberg:

Regrettably, opponents of campaign finance reform are once again using parliamentary tactics to try to block passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform legislation. This is unfortunate because a majority of the Senate favors the McCain-Feingold proposal.

Because of the steadily growing amount of money spent on political campaigns and its adverse impact on public attitudes and governing, achieving the goals of McCain-Feingold is of paramount importance. McCain-Feingold would ban "soft money," the very large, unregulated contributions that individuals, corporations and labor unions have been making in ever greater amounts to political parties. Under existing election laws, these contributions are permitted to promote general political party activities, such as voter registration, voter education and efforts to encourage voters to turn out on election day.

However over the past several years, these large soft money contributions have become a means of donors and parties circumventing limits on campaign contributions to individual candidates. The two national political parties and state parties have used these funds to purchase TV ads that specifically mention candidate names and essentially amount to advertising by political parties or groups on behalf of individual candidates with money that the candidates cannot use themselves for this purpose. Advocacy ads of this nature, fueled by large and undisclosed contributions, are a means of circumventing campaign finance restrictions on the size of contributions to individual candidates.

I support limits on very large campaign contributions to candidates, in order to prevent undue influence by special interests on those who govern. The McCain-Feingold bill would uphold existing limits by banning soft money and requiring that independent expenditures for so-called issue advocacy advertisements by political parties or advocacy groups deal exclusively with issues, rather than being designed to persuade the public about a particular candidate. McCain-Feingold redefines "express advocacy" as any broadcast television or radio communication that mentions the name of a federal candidate within 60 days of an election. Parties and groups that meet the new guidelines would be required to finance their ads in accordance with federal election laws.

This reform does not stifle free speech. It just closes a loophole that has developed in our election laws which permits unlimited, soft money expenditures to be made to buy advertisements for or against specific candidates. The bill does not in any way prevent groups or parties from publishing scorecards or voter guides.

I am and have always been a staunch advocate of free speech and very protective of First Amendment rights. I agree with legal scholars that the McCain-Feingold bill does not restrict free speech, but is important for reducing the influence of big, special interest money in our campaigns and political system. The amount of money now flowing through our electoral system is enormous and breeds a deep cynicism in the public. We need to break the choke of special interest money on the nation's Capitol and restore America's faith in our election system. . . .

In 1997, political parties raised $67 million in soft money -- more soft money than ever before raised in a non-election year and more than double what was raised in 1993. The largest single soft money check written in the last half of 1997 was for $250,000 to the Republican National Committee. And who wrote this check? Philip Morris.

Does anyone in the Senate believe that allowing tobacco companies to write unlimited checks to political parties is a good idea? Especially at a time when Congress is considering comprehensive tobacco legislation? Congress is now considering legislation that could mean that the tobacco companies would have to forgo billions of dollars of profits. Yet while we debate possible special legal protections for this outlaw industry, our campaign finance system allows them to write unlimited checks to our political parties. This is wrong. . . .

Now we have a chance to do something about soft money. Unfortunately, some of the same senators who were highlighting the problems associated with soft money last year in committee hearings are now the ones filibustering the McCain-Feingold bill that will get rid of soft money. This is tragically ironic.

I urge my colleagues to reject these parliamentary tactics to kill the McCain-Feingold bill and allow it to become law.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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