Reform is a bitter way to go for some

April 02, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Smoldering on the Senate floor the other day after a majority of his colleagues had cleared the way for passage of the McCain-Feingold bill, Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Darth Vader against campaign finance reform, let loose an uncommon tirade.

After years of blocking the legislation with a combination of bullying, delaying tactics and injecting "poison pill" amendments intended to drive off Democratic votes, Mr. McConnell was reduced to whining. With open contempt for the 53 senators whose votes had overcome the last major hurdle in the way, he called the action a "stunningly stupid thing to do."

This anti-reform stalwart, who earlier dismissed supposed public clamor for reform as akin to voters' concern about "static cling," put on a performance mindful of the neighborhood bully finally cut down to size.

"Take a look at what life will look like in a hard-money world," he wailed, referring to the bill's killing of unregulated (soft) money, thus requiring federal candidates to run on regulated (hard) money contributions.

Assuming approval of the legislation by the House, which has backed similar versions several times, and signing by the fence-straddling Republican in the White House, Mr. McConnell defiantly served notice that he will be the first to challenge its constitutionality before the Supreme Court.

"This is mutual assured destruction of the political parties," the pompous little tin soldier from Kentucky proclaimed, borrowing the celebrated phrase of Cold War nuclear confrontation.

Mr. McConnell argued that a provision in McCain-Feingold barring issue-advocacy ads by corporations and unions within weeks of Election Day would surely be declared a violation of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech, even as the bill shut down soft money to political parties.

The result, he said, would be a flood of money by entities outside the parties into such ads, in effect usurping the parties' role in campaigns. "We haven't taken a penny out of politics," he lamented, "we've only taken the parties out."

Mr. McConnell, whose greatest claim to fame in the Senate has been his record as a prodigious fund-raiser in behalf of his Republican colleagues, was joined in his lament before the key vote by Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli, who has performed the same service for his party colleagues in the Senate. Those backgrounds gave a hollow ring to their teeth-gnashing over Senate approval, at long last, of an end to soft money.

Mr. McConnell had hoped to shoot down reform again by this time attaching a "nonseverability" clause, which meant if certain key provisions were declared unconstitutional, other portions could not stand alone and the whole bill would be thrown out by the court.

The proponents, after writing the provisions with care to withstand judicial scrutiny, were willing to take their chances -- even though some pro-reform Democratic senators, alluding to the Supreme Court majority's anointing of George W. Bush as president, suggested doing so was hazardous.

Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, the floor manager for the reform bill co-sponsored by Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, met Mr. McConnell's hand-wringing with an acknowledgment that "this is a new world. I wouldn't call it necessarily a perfect world, but I think it's a better world" than the one under which the nation's politics was operating.

Mr. Dodd suggested that the $3 checkoff on individual tax returns for financing presidential campaigns might be a good yardstick of public reaction to the Senate's action. In recent years, taxpayers have stiffed the checkoff in large numbers, leaving the fund inadequate to reimburse candidates fully as stipulated under existing campaign finance law. That's a leap of optimism if ever there was one, but maybe he's right, and voters will be more willing now to make this modest engagement in the election process.

Meanwhile, a defeated but still defiant Mr. McConnell can be counted on to continue his crusade in behalf of political sugar-daddies and other special interests, in the guise of defending free speech. For now, though, the good guys have finally won.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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