Today in Washington a special panel of three federal judges will hear arguments in a case challenging the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform act, which Congress passed this year. The law, among other provisions, seeks to limit the ability of corporations, unions and individuals to give large, and largely unregulated, sums to political parties -- contributions usually known as "soft money." In the run-up to the trial, a number of politicians and business executives gave testimony about the relationship between money and politics. Here are a few excerpts:
My name is Alan K. Simpson. I served as a United States Senator from Wyoming from 1979 to 1997. . . . I have seen firsthand how the current campaign financing system prostitutes ideas and ideals, demeans democracy, and debases debate.
The national parties often ask Senators to make phone calls to raise soft money, and the process is like a boiler room operation. When I was in the Senate, the Republican leadership would take us off Capitol Hill -- usually to the Reagan Center -- give us a list of heavy hitters, and tell us to make phone calls to get more money from these donors. Sometimes, the party asked us to solicit soft money for attendance at events that included access to the president; other times major donors were given access to certain lawmakers. The more money one donates, the higher-level players he or she has access to. . . .
Donors were allowed to choose whom they wanted to sit with at events, provided they gave enough money. Party leaders would inform Members [of Congress] at caucus meetings who the big donors were. If the leaders tell you that a certain person or group has donated a large sum to the party and will be at an event Saturday night, you'll be sure to attend and get to know the people behind the donation, especially if you are told that the reason people donated was because they wanted to sit at the same table with you. At these events, it was not uncommon for the donors to mention certain legislation that affected them. . . .
[O]ne longtime contributor might come into my office and say, "Al, I'm really proud of the work you're doing here, and I'm proud to have supported you over the years. I just wanted to let you know that my company has an important issue up before Agency X. We don't want you to do anything; we just want to make you aware." A few months later, that same contributor would come back and say, "We're still waiting for the agency to make a decision. We probably don't need you, but maybe you could see if the agency would move the issue up on their priority list?" Without hesitation, I would make a call to the Secretary of the department in charge of the agency. I would not tell the Secretary how to decide the issue, nor would I make any threats; I would simply communicate that my constituent would appreciate a prompt decision. Senators make these types of phone calls all the time. . . .
Who, after all, can seriously contend that a $100,000 donation does not alter the way one thinks about -- and quite possibly votes on -- an issue? Donations from the tobacco industry to Republicans scuttled tobacco legislation, just as contributions from the trial lawyers to Democrats stopped tort reform.
My name is Alan G. Hassenfeld. Since 1989, I have served as Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Hasbro, Inc. . . . Since , Hasbro has made no soft money donations, and Hasbro does not have a political action committee. . . . As long as I am running the company, Hasbro will try to avoid being in the position of asking for or owing political favors. . . .
Many in the corporate world view large soft money donations as a cost of doing business, and frankly, a good investment relative to the potential economic benefit to their business. In fact, although there is increasing resistance in the business community as access becomes more and more expensive, I remain convinced that in some of the more publicized cases, federal officeholders actually appear to have sold themselves and the party cheaply.
They could have gotten even more money, because of the potential importance of their decisions to the affected businesses. . . .
I believe that Hasbro, though regulated like any major corporation, may have less to lose than companies more directly affected by federal activity, such as those involved in national defense or tobacco products. Frankly, I am not sure what I would do if I were manufacturing actual F-16 aircraft for the government, rather than toy F-16's for Hasbro's G.I. Joe toys.
My name is Paul Simon. I served as a U.S. Senator from Illinois from 1985 to 1997. . . . It is not unusual for large contributors to seek legislative favors in exchange for their contributions. A good example of that which stands out in my mind because it was so stark and recent occurred on the next to last day of the 1995-96 legislative session. Federal Express wanted to amend a bill being considered by a Conference Committee, to shift coverage of their truck drivers from the National Labor Relations Act to the Railway Act, which includes airlines, pilots and railroads. This was clearly of benefit to Federal Express, which according to published reports had contributed $1.4 million in the last 2-year cycle to incumbent Members of Congress and almost $1 million in soft money to the political parties.
I opposed this in the Democratic Caucus, arguing that even if it was good legislation, it should not be approved without holding a hearing; we should not cave in to special interests. One of my senior colleagues got up and said, "I'm tired of Paul always talking about special interests; we've got to pay attention to who is buttering our bread." I will never forget that. This was a clear example of donors getting their way, not on the merits of the legislation, but just because they had been big contributors. . . .
This type of distortion of the legislative process is more likely to occur if large soft money donations are permitted. When people have donated $50,000 or $100,000, they are going to want their pound of flesh after the election.
My name is Gerald Greenwald. I currently serve as Chairman Emeritus of United Airlines. . . . When sitting Members [of Congress] solicit large corporate and union contributions, the leaders of these organizations feel intense pressure to contribute, because experience has taught that the consequences of failing to contribute (or failing to contribute enough) may be very negative. Business and labor leaders believe, based on their experience, that disappointed Members, and their party colleagues, may shun or disfavor them because they have not contributed. Equally, these leaders fear that if they fail to contribute [enough], competing interests who do contribute generously will have an advantage in gaining access to and influencing key Congressional leaders on matters of importance to the company or union.
My name is John McCain. . . . During my 20 years as a Member of Congress, I have seen our campaign finance system change substantially and have seen the harmful effects that these changes have had on the American public's opinion of lawmakers. . . . In the 1992 election cycle, the two parties raised $86 million in soft money. This amount roughly tripled in the 1996 election cycle and nearly doubled again in the 2000 election cycle, climbing to a staggering $495 million. . . .
I believe, based on my experience, that elected officials do act in particular ways in order to assist large soft money donors and that this skews and shapes the legislative process. . . . Several years ago, Congress passed legislation purportedly deregulating the telecommunications industry in order to encourage competition and lower costs to the consumers. . . . Members of Congress who were involved in crafting the legislation were inundated with requests for meetings by soft money contributors -- and many Members met with these contributors. . . . [T]he public interest had few lobbyists and no campaign contributors to protect it. The legislation that was finally adopted by Congress reflected the effects of soft money contributions on the political process. The process was essentially hijacked by large soft money contributors and their lobbyists. The legislation, which dealt with issues of interest to big money donors, was poorly conceived and filled with internal inconsistencies designed to appease these competing donors rather than to serve the public interest.