High-risk tactic of campaign-finance reformers
A Senate vote on the latest bill, scaled down to woo GOP votes, is expected next month.
A longstanding drive within Congress to tighten federal controls over campaign funding faces an important test next month in the Senate, where advocates are pursuing a high-risk strategy to halt what they call a corrupting flood of unrestricted money in US elections.Skip to next paragraph
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Senate backers of campaign-finance reform have introduced a dramatically scaled- back version of their bill in a bid to overcome an anticipated Republican-led filibuster - the tactic that has repeatedly defeated such efforts in the past.
"I am ... a realist and know that we must not let the perfect bill be the enemy of real reform," said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona as he announced the new bipartisan bill jointly sponsored with Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin.
By limiting the latest bill to a ban on "soft-money" donations, Senator Feingold says he and Senator McCain seek to "change the dynamic" and sway colleagues who opposed measures contained in the broader, original version as unconstitutional. Although 52 senators backed the more comprehensive bill last year, eight more votes are needed to overcome a filibuster.
Still, the whittled-down version could also draw criticism as too weak, especially from Senate Democrats who seek more sweeping changes.
The new Senate bill would ban one of the most controversial aspects of the US campaign-finance system put in place in 1974 - the burgeoning use since the 1980s of unlimited "soft money" donations to political parties to indirectly back candidates.
Soft money consists of fund-raising that occurs outside the scope of federal laws. It allows parties to collect unlimited and unregulated contributions or gifts from unions, corporations, and wealthy people. These are supposed to be used solely for party-building activities and not to promote individual candidates.
Yet such soft-money contributions in recent years have become a mainstay of party fund-raising, multiplying from about $19 million in 1980 to $86 million in 1992 and more than $260 million in 1996. Overall, the national parties raised more than $55 million in soft money during the first six months of 1999 - 80 percent more than during the same period in the last presidential election cycle, according to Common Cause, a Washington pro-reform group.
Advocates of reform contend that the ballooning soft-money contributions have made federal limits meaningless, allowed parties to circumvent controls on aiding candidates, and revived the problems of corruption and undue influence that the 1970s reforms attempted to eradicate.
But opponents contend that the rise of soft money has strengthened national political parties and thus boosted citizen participation in elections.
So far, success has eluded congressional advocates of campaign-finance reform. Despite the passage of several bills by the House, most have died in the Senate or been vetoed by the president. Last week, much as it did last year, the House passed a comprehensive reform bill sponsored by Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut and Rep. Martin Meehan (D) of Massachusetts by a 252-to-177 vote.