McCain, Feingold: No Retreat

The effort to reform the campaign finance system not only continues, but it's picking up steam.

Despite attacks on the reform effort, many based on false information; despite attempts to turn a bipartisan reform movement into a partisan brawl; and despite parliamentary maneuvering aimed at exhausting reform supporters; the movement in general, and the McCain-Feingold bipartisan reform bill in particular, are very much alive.

A clear majority of US senators - 45 Democrats and eight Republicans - support reform. The American people are behind us. We have spent more than two years crafting a bill that attracts support across the political spectrum, that reduces the influence of money on the electoral and public policymaking system, and that reopens that system to participation by all Americans.

We have taken great pains to protect Americans' freedom of speech while making sure everyone has an opportunity to speak in the political process. Our two main provisions - a ban on soft money and a system of incentives for candidates who voluntarily restrain their campaign spending and fund-raising - have been examined by 126 constitutional scholars and found to pass constitutional muster.

Reform opponents often cite the 1976 Supreme Court decision Buckley v. Valeo to bolster arguments that McCain-Feingold threatens free speech. A fair and accurate reading of this decision, however, proves otherwise. The court permitted limits on contributions to candidates and parties, citing the government's compelling interest in combatting corruption, and the appearance of it, in our political process.

The court also permitted offering incentives - in our case, discounted television time - to encourage voluntary restraints on campaign fund-raising and spending.

Some falsely suggest McCain-Feingold would prohibit organizations, like National Right to Life or the Sierra Club, from publishing and distributing voter guides that provide information on candidates' voting records or policy positions. Our proposal includes explicit language making it clear that such guides are not covered or restricted either by McCain-Feingold or federal election law in any way.

Second, some suggest that McCain-Feingold would restrict organizations from sponsoring campaign-season "issue ads" intended to promote or discuss a particular issue, such as tax reform or the environment. Again, not true. Under McCain-Feingold, these ads would be exempt from regulation, as they should be. However, the proposal provides that if these ads advocate the election or defeat of a particular federal candidate, the ads should be covered by federal election law, meaning the funding must be raised under certain limits and be fully disclosed. McCain-Feingold does not prevent any person or organization from running any ad they want during a campaign; it is only a question of how the ad is paid for and whether it is disclosed.

During the last two years, we have made it clear we are prepared to discuss concerns about our bill and negotiate to resolve areas of disagreement. We will talk, we will negotiate, but we will not capitulate.

There will be another vote today on the McCain-Feingold bill, and if necessary, there will be more votes after that. We may be forced to employ other tactics, including attaching all or parts of our bill to other legislation.

Delay can no longer be excused. Lawmakers must declare whether they defend the status quo, a system that has disenfranchised millions of Americans from their own political process while smelling of special interest corruption, or whether they support this badly needed reform. The choice is plain, the need is obvious, and the path to reform is clear before us.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona

Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D) of Wisconsin


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