Fighting campaign reform to bitter end

March 22, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- In his cockier days before Congress dealt him a major defeat the other day, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Darth Vader of campaign finance reform, liked to ridicule the bipartisan effort to bring it about.

He would smugly declare that there was about as much interest in it among voters as there was in "static cling."

Why he chose that particular plague of good grooming to make his point was puzzling.

Now that the Senate has enacted the bill to put a lid on unregulated "soft money" donations to the parties in federal campaigns, Mr. McConnell is less flippant but just as resolute.

He has declared himself the lead plaintiff in the opponents' plan to carry the fight to the judiciary, on a fast track to the Supreme Court if his efforts fail in a pitch to a three-judge appellate court.

As disdainful as ever about what he implies is an imaginary public concern over campaign financing, Mr. McConnell told a news conference after the Senate's 60-40 approval of the McCain-Feingold reform bill that he'd never heard of any politician being defeated for re-election on the issue.

He might become the first, he said, but didn't seem at all convinced of it.

The legal appeal, he said, will be made on the basis of the argument he has been making ever since he first threw his body across the tracks to stop the reform train.

He says limits on campaign giving violate the First Amendment by impeding free speech -- looking at cash contributions to candidates as a natural extension of political expression.

Mr. McConnell is expected to target all soft money prohibitions under the new law, but especially the provision that will bar unregulated contributions for so-called issue advocacy ads within 30 days of a primary election and within 60 days of a general election if they specifically mention a candidate.

Up to now, such ads by private groups have been able to name a targeted candidate in connection with a specific issue as long as they don't specifically call for a vote for or against that candidate.

After this November's elections, when the new law triggers in, if such groups want to support or attack a candidate in an issue ad, they will have to do it with regulated, limited "hard money."

One purpose of the provision, in addition to severely reducing the soft money flow, is to eliminate late negative personal attacks by third parties that have increasingly poisoned the political campaign atmosphere.

To the bitter end, Mr. McConnell sought to derail the reform, first with changes he insisted were only "technical" but if accepted could have thrown the legislation into a House-Senate conference committee black hole or splinter the bipartisan coalition behind it.

An early McConnell threat to filibuster the bill to death was stared down by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who had cots brought into the Senate basement as a signal to Mr. McConnell and other reform foes that he was ready to endure an opposition talkathon as long as possible. When Mr. Daschle was able to demonstrate he had the 60 votes required to end a filibuster, Mr. McConnell caved.

But he has made clear that it is only a temporary retreat. And although a campaign finance reform bill has finally passed, Mr. McConnell and other foes were successful enough with their stonewalling to oblige its chief architects to cut it back from a much more ambitious package in order to garner the necessary votes.

One concession was the starting date of the new law, which originally was to go into effect on enactment and signing by the president.

Some incumbents were afraid of an abrupt cutoff of the money spigot as they faced the voters in November.

Another was the reluctant agreement of the bill's authors to double the limit on hard money contributions in federal elections, from $1,000 to $2,000.

Nevertheless, the feat of closing off the soft-money avenue that brought nearly half a billion dollars to the parties in 2000 is no small one, and the first meaningful campaign reform in more than 25 years.

Meanwhile, Mr. McConnell will be trying to reverse it, even as the special interests look for new ways to buy political influence.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.