After nearly five years of filibusters and political wrangling, the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Bill finally managed to clear the United States Senate on Monday. Like any piece of legislation coming off Capitol Hill, this one must be taken with a grain of salt. Is it perfect? No. But it is a step in the right direction, and if students want to see the bill survive the House of Representatives as well, they should get on the horn with their local congressperson.
As it is currently written, the McCain-Feingold bill would stamp-out “soft-money” contributions – large, unregulated donations made by corporations, unions and individuals to political parties. It would also attempt to curtail the use of “issue ads” – expensive pieces of broadcast political advertising purchased by outside groups close to an election. The legislation is a well-intentioned attempt to curb the power plays of heavily moneyed interests in Washington; unfortunately, it is difficult to predict how the bill will play out if passed.
The bill was first introduced in 1995 by senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Russell Feingold (D-Wisconsin). McCain stepped on more than a few Republican toes by co-authoring the bill. But the 1996 election, in which a record $500 million was shelled out, put the Lincoln bedroom on the auction block like a room at the Holiday Inn and pushed the bill into the limelight.
Commentators across the nation have heralded the McCain-Feingold bill as a watershed event in the struggle to curb the power of moneyed interests in Washington. It is the most significant piece of legislation to address the issue since 1974, when Watergate set off the first wave of campaign finance reform. Although it faces stiff Republican opposition along with a few dissenters within the Democrat ranks, including House minority leader Dick Gephardt, there is reason for supporters to be confident. McCain-Feingold beat a rival bill put forward my Senator Charles Hagel (R-Nebraska), which took a much softer stance. In addition, two pieces of less significant, but similar legislation passed the House in 1998 and 1999.
Campaign finance reform is a sticky issue and tantamount to asking a pack of ravenous hyenas to regulate their daily consumption. You have to give a little to get a little in Congress, but Monday’s 59-41 vote in the Senate sent the bill to the House with only one less than desirable alteration. The bill was amended to raise the limits on direct donations to candidates, otherwise known as “hard-money” contributions. For individuals, the limit would be hiked up a hefty 100 percent, from $1,000 to $2,000, and the aggregate total that one person could contribute during a two-year electoral cycle would be raised 200 percent, from $25,000 to $75,000. The limits for political action committee contributions will be raised as well. Despite these changes, the bill still represents one more step toward the principle that Americans will go to great length to curb undue power afforded by wealth.
The road to reform is not easy. If the McCain-Feingold bill passes, it will inevitably be challenged in the courts by opponents who claim that it violates the First Amendment right to free speech. Fortunately, the bill escaped the addition of a non-severability clause, which would send the entire piece of legislation down in flames if any one segment was found unconstitutional. The bill must make it through the House unscathed and free of riders that would send it back to the committee in Senate, thereby tacking on additional years of haggling. Bush has recently refused to take a serious stand on the issue, but he attacked the bill when he faced McCain in the primaries last year. However, for anybody still boiling over the fact that the last election had already been paid for in 1998, now is the time to put Bush to the test.
The McCain-Feingold bill has not yet been scheduled to appear before the House. Now is the time to grab a pen and paper, and put them to good use. Write to your local congressperson and insist that they put the legislation on Bush’s desk exactly as it appeared when they received it.