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McCain-Feingold: Much Ado About Not Much

by Marty Jezer

Senators blocking real reform that would neutralize their financial advantage
The McCain-Feingold bill that just passed in the Senate, is being promoted, in the words of the Associated Press, as "the most sweeping overhaul of campaign finance law in a quarter-century." While historically true, at least in terms of the federal government which has not tackled campaign finance reform since the Federal Election Campaign Acts of the early 1970s, the bill, in substance, does very little to alter the system of legalized bribery by which political candidates get elected.

Even with McCain-Feingold, rich and powerful special interests will still be able to invest millions of dollars in elected officials and so, with their contributions, dominate the political process. Still, passage of the bill represents a breakthrough for reform, if for no other reason than it shows the political power that the movement for campaign finance reform now has.

A number of Senate Democrats abhor campaign finance reform and would have voted with their Republican allies to defeat it, if opposition to reform was politically viable. But the political climate no longer makes opposition tenable. Democrats and moderate Republicans have to support the bill because of pressure from their constituents.

The bill itself is minimally acceptable. While closing the soft money loophole (huge donations given by corporations, unions, and other special interest groups (ostensibly to support political parties), it raises the amount of hard money (contributions made directly to candidates and parties). Even as you read this, lawyers for both parties are working to find ways to get around the bill's prohibitions.

Here are some of the obvious ways special interests will continue to corrupt the political system. First, we can expect an increase in the amount of Political Action Committee money going to candidates for federal election. Expect, also, an increase in the increase the number of PACs as special interest groups create additional vehicles to deliver their money.

Though banning soft money, McCain-Feingold doubles the amount of hard money, from $1,000 to $2,000, that individuals can invest in politicians and raises the aggregate limit they can give to politicians and parties from $25,000 to $37,500. In reality, the limit is doubled per couple and increased even more when the parents give money in their children's name, already a common practice.

Hard money contributions invite "bundling," a system where a corporation will collect the $2000 checks from executives and their spouses and children and bundle them so that the candidate knows they come from the corporations. A study by Public Campaign (www.publicampaign.org) found that for the 2000 election, 1/8 of one percent of voters gave maximum contributions of $1000 to individual candidates most of them incumbents. The total of their contributions was $380 million, or 44 percent of the total money given to all federal candidates. Under McCain-Feingold, that total could be doubled.

Even this underestimates the influence of large contributors. Most big contributors leverage their influence by giving money to candidates of both parties. There is an implicit threat with each proffered gift. "If a legislator doesn't do the interest group's bidding, the contribution can be withdrawn for the next election cycle, with more money going to the legislator's opponent.

Now the ball is in George W. Bush's court. He's consistently spoken out against McCain-Feingold but is obviously afraid of John McCain's stature, not to mention his famous anger. Had McCain enough money to compete with Bush on a level playing-field in the Republican presidential primary, he, not Bush, would likely have been the Republican candidate for President. If Bush signs McCain-Feingold he shows weakness to his rabidly ideological right-wing supporters. If he opposes it, he emboldens McCain's increasingly assertive "Bull Moose" challenge.

The most important amendment that went down to defeat was the "states' rights" amendment introduced by Senators Paul Wellstone (MN), John Kerry (MA) and Maria Cantwell (WA). It would have enabled individual states to allow voluntary public financing (clean money) for federal elections. The amendment was defeated 64-36, an indication of how opposed incumbent Senators are to real reform that would neutralize their financial advantage. States rights Republicans who, on principle, should have supported this amendment, of course, opposed it. Like the states-righters on the U.S. Supreme Court, they never let political principle stand in the way of their quest for political power.

McCain-Feingold should not be the end of reform; it should be the beginning. The public, which forced reluctant Senators to back the bill, should be emboldened. Real reform would flatten the financial playing-field. The Fannie Lou Hamer Project http://www.flhp.org>, an organization that considers campaign finance reform to be an extension of civil and voting rights, suggests the application of what it calls the "Fannie Lou Hamer standard." The daughter of a Mississippi sharecropper, Ms. Hamer was a leader in the fight for voting rights. She had a proven record of civic accomplishment but no access to wealth and thus could not compete effectively when she ran for U.S. Senate. Real reform would enable smart, dynamic and articulate people, like Fannie Lou Hamer, to run on a level financial playing-field against incumbent candidates financed by special interest money. With due respect to John McCain and Russell Feingold, two of the most honorable men in Congress, their bill doesn't meet that standard.

Now that McCain-Feingold has finally passed, it's time to mobilize for real reform. Under the clean money system, candidates who agree to accept no special-interest money, get public money to run their campaigns. The playing-field is level and merit rather than money becomes the dominant force in the political process. More than ten years ago, reporter Brooks Jackson wrote in his book Honest Graft that Congress will not pass meaningful reform unless it "feels the heat of grassroots pressure." McCain-Feingold proves the power of the reform movement. It's time to up the ante and build a movement for clean money that makes the ballot, and not the dollar, the determinant factor in American politics.


Marty Jezer writes from Brattleboro, Vermont. He is the author of biographies of Abbie Hoffman and Rachel Carson, and of The DARK AGES: LIFE IN THE USA, 1945-1960. As a member of the Working Group on Electoral Democracy, he helped conceptualize the clean money reform

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Albion Monitor April 9, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor)

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