Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold may sympathize with Sisyphus today. Like that character of Greek myth, the Arizona Republican and the Wisconsin Democrat have once again rolled the rock of campaign-finance reform almost to the top of the hill, only to have it roll back down again.
Despite two animated debates and a year-long investigation that revealed a series of improprieties, if not illegalities, in the 1996 presidential campaigns, lawmakers simply cannot agree on how to fix the system, or even whether it needs fixing. Each party has again shown it can block reform efforts it believes threaten its ability to raise money and give the advantage to the other side.
The Senate today will take a series of votes to try to break the stalemate on the issue that has lasted for years. But a key vote late Tuesday indicated that legislators are as divided as ever.
While a majority of senators - all 45 Democrats and seven Republicans - support the McCain-Feingold proposal and a friendly amendment by Sens. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine and James Jeffords (R) of Vermont, the measures do not have the 60 votes needed to end debate under Senate rules.
Likewise, a counterproposal by Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi that would prohibit labor unions from using members' dues to finance political activity without members' written permission can muster only 48 votes - all Republicans.
For the GOP leadership, the issue is dead for the year. "If you can't get to 60 votes, there's no use in spending three weeks on it," says majority whip Don Nickles (R) of Oklahoma.
But minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota, furious at Senator Lott's parliamentary tactics to block McCain-Feingold, says Democrats may try to attach campaign-finance proposals to other bills, thus slowing an already glacial Senate process.
"I'm disappointed, frustrated, and prepared to take this to any length required to bring this to a successful resolution," Senator Daschle says.
The McCain-Feingold bill would ban so-called soft-money (unlimited contributions to parties), prohibit advertising by advocacy groups during the 60 days before an election, and require more disclosure of contributors. The Snowe-Jeffords amendment would require advocacy groups that advertise on TV and radio in the last 60 days of a federal campaign to disclose the source of all donations of more than $500. It would also bar labor unions and corporations from funding broadcast campaign ads during that period. The bill is backed by the White House; Common Cause; the League of Women Voters; and 18 Christian and Jewish denominations.
Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson (R), who led last year's inquiry into the 1996 campaign, says McCain-Feingold is needed just to return to the post-Watergate reforms, which have been riddled by a series of decisions by the Supreme Court and the Federal Election Commission. "We don't have a campaign-finance system anymore," Senator Thompson says. "We currently have a system in which the loopholes are bigger than the law."
But most Republicans, led by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, vehemently oppose McCain-Feingold, as does the American Civil Liberties Union and a host of advocacy groups. Opponents insist the reform proposal violates the free-speech provisions of the First Amendment to the Constitution.
"It's not the government's business to tell American citizens how much they get to speak during a campaign," Senator McConnell says. He denies that there is too much money in federal campaigns, noting that Americans spent more on gum in 1996 than was spent on political ads. If anything, he says, more money is needed so that more Americans can speak out on the issues.
As happened last fall, the issue this week has seen an uncommon amount of parliamentary maneuvering. Lott offered up his union-dues proposal - dubbed the Paycheck Protection Act - as the opening salvo on campaign-finance reform. Senator McCain moved to substitute his bill, which survived an attempt Tuesday to kill it. Senator Snowe offered her amendment, and then Lott used up all the other amendment possibilities to prevent any other proposals from reaching the floor, introducing an amendment to prohibit the Federal Communications Commission from requiring broadcasters to give candidates free air time. Three votes are scheduled for today to cut off debate. None is expected to succeed.
The fight continues
The issue is set to come up in the House before Easter. Reps. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut and Martin Meehan (D) of Massachusetts are sponsoring the companion to McCain-Feingold, but whether that will ever reach the House floor is far from clear. House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas says the GOP leadership will put forward its own proposal, which will include the union-dues proposal offered by Lott in the Senate.
Supporters of reform will fight on. "We will never give up on this issue," McCain says. "Sooner or later we will sit down in a bipartisan fashion and fix this and restore the confidence of the American people."
"People who think they can quietly kill this effort are wrong," Daschle insists. "One day we will succeed. We will not give up."
But McConnell is unrepentant. "We're not quietly killing it. We're proudly killing it," he says. "We're grateful for the opportunity to defend the First Amendment."