Selfish senators quash campaign reform

PRINCETON, N.J., (U-Wire) — Just before we left for fall break, a Republican filibuster in the Senate effectively squashed campaign finance reform as it has every year since 1996. And with the success of the filibuster, majority leader Trent Lott gleefully pronounced the issue “dead for the year.” But why such glee?
Few issues have more broad-reaching appeal among Americans. If the political system works as it ought to, a measure supported by most citizens should face little opposition from Congress. The House passes campaign finance reform legislation every year, simply because such a measure makes sense. The goal of campaign reform, after all, is to eliminate the pork-barrel spending on special interest agendas that gets hidden in the budget. When special interest groups and PACs donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to party coffers, those parties are then effectively obligated to advance those interests, whether or not they are in line with the interests of the nation. As a result, the annual budget comes laced with items inserted in conference, never voted on by a full Congress and typically geared toward repaying political donations.
In a Nov. 4 column in The Washington Times, Senate campaign finance reform sponsor and Republican presidential hopeful John McCain cites $1.75 million for manure handling in Mississippi, $200,000 for sunflower research in Fargo, $300,000 for a wheels museum in New Mexico and $4 million for a parking lot in Arkansas, as examples of the $13 billion of pork-barrel spending in next year’s budget.
To McCain, this sort of spending is all part of a general failure of governmental effectiveness. “Who’s to blame for these failures?” he asks in an Oct. 14 Wall Street Journal column. “The status quo mentality that prevails among both Washington Democrats and Republicans. Neither side is much interested in advancing a real agenda. They just want to stay in office, which requires amassing huge amounts of campaign cash. And where does that money come from? Only large institutions like labor unions, special interest groups and corporations can write the $100,000 checks that buy access. So on issue after issue, the cravings of the special interests take priority over the needs of working Americans.”
The central component of his campaign finance reform bill, McCain-Feingold, is a ban on unlimited soft-money donations from special interest groups to party committees that corrupt our political system, and they certainly do. By 1996 spending levels swelled to more than $650 million from $192 million in 1980. Perhaps our politicians have shifted accordingly.
Federal Election Commission statistics demonstrate that the $200 million of soft money collected by the two major parties in the 1998 elections more than doubles the amount collected in 1994. According to Common Cause, 98 percent of House incumbents were re-elected in 1998, with a five-to-one financial advantage over their opponents. Ninety percent of Senate incumbents were likewise re-elected, with a smaller two-to-one financial advantage but with a nine-to-one advantage in PAC money. Increasingly, viable candidacy has become synonymous with special interest donations.
A soft-money ban then makes all the sense in the world. It enjoys broad support across a wide range of Americans and stalls every year only because of partisan divisiveness. Republicans who oppose the bill argue it threatens free speech. Even if we believe free speech somehow hinges on freedom to contribute money, the common utility is far better served by eliminating soft money and thus empowering those who cannot contribute than by defending the “free speech” of those who can.
And so the next time Republican senators block McCain-Feingold, they should reflect on their selfish, office-saving tactics before proclaiming that such a proactive, logical, far-reaching and necessary bill is dead for the year.
Alex Rawsom’s column originally appeared in Wednesday’s Princeton University paper, The Daily Princetonian.