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Archive for Monday, July 10, 2000

A small campaign reform step

July 10, 2000

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— This time, all the political forces aligned to produce the first significant campaign finance reform law in 21 years. Next time may be a while coming.

The law will force disclosure of the source of donations to organizations that previously did not have to identify their backers and got tax breaks besides. The votes for it resulted from a combination of reform supporters, political self-preservationists and an instinct for protection against the risk that secret money could be aimed at the lawmakers who were voting on the issue.

It was the campaign finance equivalent of "The Perfect Storm," created by an extraordinary combination of conditions.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the Senate was taking only a "a great first step" in stripping the secrecy away from tax-free contributions that have been going around the disclosure rules and limits that apply when the money is donated to candidates.

The leading Republican foes of campaign finance restrictions got out of the way in both the Senate and the House. Secrecy is baggage no one wanted four months before the congressional and presidential elections.

President Clinton signed the measure immediately. Organizations that had been able to raise and spend money politically under Section 527 of the Internal Revenue code now will have to report who gave it and how it was spent.

"This law will make a difference," Clinton said. "But it's just a step, not a substitute, for comprehensive campaign reform."

Despite the opposition of Republican congressional leaders, there have been majority votes in both the House and Senate for varying versions of campaign finance legislation. But there was always the virtual certainty that the bill would be blocked in the Senate, short of the 60 votes needed to force final action.

On the secret money disclosure bill, the votes were overwhelming, 385-39 in the House, 92-6 in the Senate.

Full disclosure often has been the Republican alternative to bills that would impose new restrictions on campaign fund raising. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential candidate, favors almost instant disclosure on the Internet, which he says is the rule in his campaign. He supported the bill.

Vice President Al Gore and Clinton both denounced one of the groups the measure covers, Citizens for Better Medicare, a drug-industry backed campaign against their proposal to add prescription drug benefits to Medicare. Clinton and Gore both said the organization should observe the spirit of the new law and identify its past donors.

The law Clinton signed on July 1 does not deal with the major target of McCain and his reform allies, the unregulated soft money the political parties are raising and spending in vast sums.

McCain said reformers will get there. They made it this far, in part, because his candidacy demonstrated in defeat that campaign reform can be a mobilizing issue.

Donor secrecy is a hard sell in an election campaign. So hard that the most determined foe of new restrictions said Republican senators should go ahead and vote for it because opposing the measure was not worth the risk at the polls.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said the impact would be limited, and the bill probably will be undone in court as a violation of the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.

"Nevertheless, I say to my Republican colleagues, particularly those who are up for election this year, that is a pretty hard argument to explain in a political campaign," McConnell said. "This is not a spear worth falling on four months in advance of an election."

It is not clear how much money will be affected.

The Center for Public Integrity has listed 22 groups involved in the 2000 campaign that the legislation covers.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center estimates that $275 million to $350 million was spent in the 1998 elections on television advertising by outside groups not connected with candidates. But that includes spending by major interest groups not covered by the bill.

The law does apply to the Republican Majority Issues Committee, through which Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the House majority whip, seeks to raise $25 million for GOP congressional campaigns this year.

DeLay, who stayed away when the House passed the bill, believes the courts will overturn the law, which he said was a move by Democrats to protect their candidates "from valid attacks on their positions and beliefs."

"The Democrats are the ultimate hypocrites and they must explain their double standard to the American people," DeLay said.

When he opposed a campaign finance bill the House approved Sept. 14, DeLay supported new filing requirements instead.

"After all," DeLay said then, "what reform can restore accountability more than an open book?"

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