Senate campaign-finance bill beats House version to table

Thursday, January 21, 1999

Despite the ongoing Clinton impeachment trial in the Senate, the two sponsors of last session's leading campaign-finance reform bill quietly introduced the same measure yesterday.

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., submitted their bill — the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 1999 — in the hopes that Congress would ban soft-money contributions, enact stronger disclosure requirements and tighten restrictions on corporate and union spending during elections.

“While my colleagues may argue about the details of campaign finance reform, the fact remains that the chase for money has replaced the battle of ideas in politics today,” McCain said in a statement sent to the First Amendment Center. “I am hopeful that the public's growing dissatisfaction will spur the Senate to pass meaningful legislation that will change the way campaigns are financed and restore the country's faith in government.”

Last session, the McCain-Feingold bill faced debate three separate times, falling to a Senate filibuster each time. Last September, supporters could not force a vote on the issue even though as many as 52 senators said they supported the measure.

The latest McCain-Feingold bill beat a mirror House version to the table. Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass., had announced plans to introduce their bill this week, but as of this morning had not done so.

Reform supporters in the House had much more success last session. Despite an effort by the GOP leadership to block consideration of the Shays-Meehan bill, the House eventually approved it last August by a 252-179 vote.

Opponents to the campaign-finance bills say such reform violates the First Amendment. They argue that the Supreme Court, with its 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo, found that campaign-spending restrictions impede free speech.

GOP leaders, in particular, say the real focus of reform efforts should be on investigating alleged Democratic violations of current law in the 1996 presidential campaign.

But those supporting the Shays-Meehan bill in the House and McCain-Feingold bill in the Senate say the measures don't restrict anyone's free-speech rights. Instead, they say the bills restrict what they call the corruptive nature of uncontrolled campaign contributions.

Last year, McCain and Feingold submitted a statement from 126 First Amendment scholars who agreed that a soft-money ban was constitutional.

Provisions of the McCain-Feingold bill include:

  • A ban on all contributions to national political parties from corporations, labor unions and individuals for the purpose of party-building or get-out-the-vote exercises. This “soft money” restriction prohibits federal parties from spending such money on campaign advertising.
  • An increase in the amount individuals may contribute to state parties for use in federal elections from $5,000 to $10,000, and an increase in annual aggregate donations to federal candidates and political parties from $25,000 to $30,000.
  • Restrictions on corporate and union campaign advertising that avoids direct support or opposition of a particular candidate.
  • A requirement for unions to notify non-union members that they are entitled to have their agency fees reduced by an amount equal to the portion of fees used for political purposes.
  • More disclosure requirements including lower reporting thresholds and electronic filing.

Feingold said his bill has a particularly strong chance for passage this year because of bipartisan support in both houses.

“Our bill is balanced and bipartisan,” Feingold said in a statement. “Moreover, it is the right thing to do. We must act now before fundraising for the 2000 presidential election leads to abuses that will make the scandals of 1996 pale in comparison.”