At least Mitch McConnell makes no bones about the fact that he's trying to kill reform of the campaign financing system. While he claims to be standing on high constitutional grounds (largely phony), occasionally he also lets us know that he's trying to stifle reform for political reasons as well. (To preserve the Republican majority.) Not so the Democrats.
So accustomed have observers of these nearly annual campaign finance battles become to watching the Senate Republican leadership--McConnell along with Majority Leader Trent Lott--strangle such legislation through clever parliamentary tactics, that in this latest round it was largely overlooked that the Democrats, too, joined in the kill. Hiding behind mock-sincere rhetoric stating that they strongly supported reform, the Democrats employed parliamentary tactics that helped undermine the most recent attempt to change the system. They gambled that if reform failed again this year, people would again place the blame on McConnell. So far their gamble has largely paid off.
This year Sen. John McCain, co-sponsor of the McCain-Feingold bill, decided that some reform was better than none, and so he lopped off the more controversial "issue ad" component of his bill--the one meant to prevent money that cannot be contributed directly to a candidate ("soft money") from being laundered through the political parties' committees to make ads for the benefit of their candidates.
Knowing that the broader bill didn't have a chance of surviving a filibuster in the Senate, McCain offered only the other half of his bill: a ban on soft money in federal elections. He had a deal with the leadership, or so he thought, that it would be open to amendments that might bring in more Republican supporters. The idea was to show increased support for reform, if not get a bill through the Senate.
But the Democrats combined with the Republicans to make sure he didn't have a chance to demonstrate that. In the name of favoring the broader proposition--a ban on soft money and curbs on issue ads actually intended to help or hurt a given candidate--the Democrats used parliamentary tactics worthy of McConnell's to make sure that nothing happened at all. They torpedoed McCain's strategy by offering amendments that had the effect of barring consideration of proposals that might have broadened Republican support for McCain's bill.
Democrats had been divided over whether they could stomach a ban on soft money that wasn't accompanied by curbs on issue ads. They had received advice from an attorney-adviser that they shouldn't do so. The worry was that the Republicans' allies would do better at diverting soft money into supposedly independent issue ads.
A Democratic Senate aide said, "We don't have the structure out there that the Republicans do"--as many groups ready to gather and spend soft money on issue ads. Further, though Republicans outraise the Democrats in soft money (they outraise them in everything), the Democrats have themselves become addicted to it--the large sums that are easier to raise.
The banner was taken up by Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, who also happens to head the Democratic Senate campaign committee. Torricelli made the argument, on the Senate floor and in television interviews, that McCain had made a "premature retreat." What he was really about was making sure that McCain's strategy was blocked and that no soft-money ban was approved. Minority Leader Tom Daschle joined in this effort.
The irony was that in doing so, the Democratic leader helped McConnell out. McConnell was worried--with reason--that support for reform was growing. To try to prevent defections, he worked over Republican senators who might support some kind of reform. The possible--and actual--defections of Sam Brownback of Kansas and Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas were particularly troubling, because both represented areas where the Christian right--the Republicans' largest army--is strong. The third defector, William Roth of Delaware, had wavered on this issue before. Five other Republicans were ready to start talking about a compromise.
McConnell didn't have to fear that reformers could actually muster the 60 votes to shut down a filibuster. His concern was that it would be demonstrated that he was losing supporters. A business lobbyist who attends meetings in McConnell's office of representatives of about 50 anti-reform groups says, "I think he was increasingly nervous that the reform movement was picking up senators."
The lobbyist explained, "His concern was that this keeps coming back and coming back and coming back, and it's death by a thousand cuts." The strategy, the lobbyist said, was: "Hunker down and ensure that all the interests that benefit by the current system were told to pound away at the members, to make it clear that it was really important that they not change their minds."
In the end, McConnell may have earned the cynicism cup for throwing a vote--instructing opponents of reform to vote in favor of a motion by McCain which provided an indirect test of his proposal--so as to mask the increasing strength of the reformers. But Daschle wasn't far behind, giving at the end an ostensibly indignant speech decrying the Republicans' tactics. (Another Democratic senator told me that the Democrats' internal discussions were largely concerned with how to maneuver in order to keep campaign finance reform alive as an issue to use against Republicans.)
After this year's fight was over, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a strong supporter of reform, said in an interview, "I think both sides are equally culpable."
When it comes to hypocrisy, this Congress can be bipartisan after all.
The writer's most recent book is "The Corruption of American Politics; What Went Wrong and Why."