April 04, 2020

Time to kill the poison pill

Some members of Congress who oppose reforming the corrupt campaign finance sytem assert that voters simply don’t care much about the issue and won’t hold them accountable at the polls for voting in favor of the big-money status quo. A word of advice for them: Don’t bet the farm on it.

If they’re right, such apathy would be understandable these days. The average citizen has been thoroughly locked out of the political process by the cancer of special industry money, and our politicians have engendered deep public cynicism with their money-grubbing ways. In my estimation, though, people do care — and deeply. Sadly, many of their senators would rather hide behind partisan chicanery than restore some decency and integrity to our democracy by passing the McCain-Feingold reform bill.

Contrary to popular belief and despite the recent votes against the bill, the reform effort is still alive and kicking. And Sen. Snowe, perhaps more than any other, is key to its success.

Before the Senate recessed for its Coumbus Day holiday, Majority Leader Trent Lott kept his promise to keep the special interest money flowing into the political system by blocking the McCain-Feingold bill. While not a cure-all, the bill would ban the unlimited, unregulated donations known as “soft-money,” which is at the heart of virtually all of the current fund-raising scandals. It also would put an end to some of the phoney “issue ads” that were used by both parties in 1996 to evade federal election spending laws.

True to his word, Lott tried to atach a poison pill amendment designed to kill McCain-Feingold. And rather then allow an honest up-or-down vote on his amendment — which supporters of the bill might have mustered enough votes to win — Lott used arcane parliamentary procedures to produce a stalemate. It worked, at least for the moment. Now Republicans find themselves in the awkward position of holding Senate hearings aimed at embarrassing the president for his fund-raising tactics while blocking reform of the very system that Clinton and the Republicans expoited.

Here’s a news flash, Sen. Lott: It’s the system itself that is corrupt. The biggest campaign scandals do not come from illegal fund-raising. The major problem is what is legal.

With fresh scandals gushing from the Thompson hearings in the Senate almost daily, and more buried in untold Republican chicanery, a distressing truth about the federal government has emerged: Our elected officials spend a huge portion of their time and energy begging corporate chieftans and other wealthy patrons for money. Not just a few measly bucks for campaign buttons and yard signs, either. We’re talking about millions of dollars in soft money donatons that are laundered through the political parties in a deliberate circumvention of federal law.

During the 1996 election cycle, the parties raised an astounding $262 million in soft money ($138 million for the Republicans and $124 million for the Democrats) — compared with $86 million total during the previous presidential election cycle. This explosion in the soliciting of soft money and the way it was spent made a mockery of campaign laws enacted after Watergate. Does anyone believe these wealthy contributors expect nothing in return for their $50,000 and $100,000 contributions? The American people aren’t that naive.

Sen. Lott’s maneuvers have wounded McCain-Feingold seriously, but not mortally. The sponsers, Sens. John McCain, Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wisc., along with Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, have vowed to keep bringing it up. All 45 Democrats will vote for it. That means on a straight up or down vote only five republicans are needed to give Vice President Al Gore the decisive, tie-breaking vote. Before the recess, the Senate voted 52-48 to break a Republican filibuster of the bill. That’s eight votes short of the 60 needed to break the filibuster, but enough to pass the bill if Republicans will stop their obstruction.

But first, Sen. Lott’s poison pill amendment must be defeated. If Sen. Snowe will join her four Republican colleagues who have announced their opposition to Sen. Lott’s tactics, a majority vote of the Senate can kill the poison pill. Sen. Snowe claims to be searching for a compromise on the amendment, but most Republicans won’t vote for McCain-Feingold even if the amendment in its current form passes. So a compromise won’t necessarily bring us closer to reform. Sen. Snowe needs to stop trying to have it both ways. She should vote against the Lott amendment so the bill can move forward.

The Senate has an historic opportunity to stop the cancer of special interest money from spreading even further through the body politic, and indeed, to send it into remission. Sen. Snowe faces a clear choice. She can support the status quo money system or do what she and everyone else knows is right: End the legalized corruption of soft money. The citizens of Maine must let Sen. Snowe know that they care about reform and about the choice Sen. Snowe makes.

Joan Claybrook is president of Public Citizen, one of the nation’s oldest and largest consumer organizations.

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