Archive for Sunday, March 25, 2001

Finance amendments face realities

March 25, 2001


— Realism is not always a striking feature of Senate debates, but then, there are few subjects on which senators have greater firsthand experience than the financing of political campaigns. So it is that the first two substantive changes approved in the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill dealt with real-world problems.

The amendments were approved by identical 70-30 votes, with the blessing of the sponsors of the bipartisan legislation, Arizona Republican John McCain and Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold. They may cause difficulties for passing the McCain-Feingold bill, but they assure that if it becomes law, it has a better chance of working.

One amendment would lift the ceiling on contributions to candidates facing self-financed millionaires. The other would put teeth into the requirement in current law that television broadcasters sell air time to candidates at the same advantageous rate their best customers get.

The effect of the first would be to erase some of the advantages now being exploited by wealthy individuals who set out to buy themselves a seat in Congress. The impact of the second would be to reduce the most expensive item in many campaign budgets, the cost of television ads.

While obvious "poison pill" amendments were being rejected, these sensible changes prevailed. But they could still cause problems on final passage of McCain-Feingold. Democrats split 23-27 on the first of the amendments, which raised the cap on individual contributions from $1,000 to as much as $6,000 for candidates facing self-financed millionaires. Sen. Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader who was part of the opposition, warned that this could "lessen the opportunity for us to keep Democrats together" in support of the underlying bill banning "soft money" donations to the political parties from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals.

Soft money has become a mainstay of politics, and McCain for one accepts the reality that before the debate ends next week, someone will try to raise the $1,000 limit for all hard-money contributions in order to make up for the loss of soft money.

Purists in the campaign finance reform community denounce that even though the $1,000 limit has not been changed since it went into effect a quarter-century ago. So Daschle has reason to fear that the issue could turn some Democrats away from the bill.

The TV ad amendment poses a similar danger on the Republican side. Existing law requires broadcasters to offer candidates for federal office their "lowest unit rate," i.e., the rate charged their best, big-volume advertisers. But, as many senators said during the debate, broadcasters warn the candidates that if they opt for the bargain rate, their ads may be, and likely will be, bumped into off-hours when few are watching.

As Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada said, television news coverage of campaigns in his state is "pathetic. .. and you can't use the lowest unit rate, because those commercials almost always get bumped. ... So we almost always have to buy the most expensive, nonpre-emptable time," pushing up campaign expenses.

But the amendment split Republican ranks 22-28. Some of the 22 yes votes came from Republicans like Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, a dedicated foe of McCain-Feingold who clearly hopes that adding amendments opposed by powerful lobbies such as the broadcasters will sink the bill.

And half a dozen of the 28 no votes came from Republicans and Democrats regarded as supporters of the bill. One of them, Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran, was McCain's prize winter recruit from the ranks of previous opponents and he is still aboard. "I suspected there would be some amendments I wouldn't like," Cochran told me, "but I've committed to support the bill. I hope we can work out the problems in conference with the House."

For myself, the more this bill becomes full-fledged, realistic campaign finance reform and not simply a soft-money ban the more reason to hope it becomes law.

One of the great reporters of this generation, Richard Harwood, died this week. Working with him and for him, in his stints as national news editor of The Washington Post was one of the treasured experiences of my life. I was teamed with Dick in Los Angeles in 1968, when Robert Kennedy was killed, and have never seen a more impressive journalistic performance. A witness to the shooting, Harwood refused to take even a short break from the lengthy vigil at the hospital, where Kennedy lay dying. For three days, he wrote calm, compelling accounts of the scene even as his heart was breaking. Dick was fiercely independent in his judgments, scrupulously fair and totally unintimidated by power or social snobbery. His example was unique and vital to all of us at The Post.

David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.