Citizen Reform Groups and the “Cain-Gold” Bill

One of the hardest decisions for citizen reform groups to make when supporting legislation that is pending for years is how much weakening they will tolerate before they break away in opposition.

Campaign finance reform in Congress, after years of struggle by coalition groups such as Common Cause and Public Citizen, passed and was unenthusiastically signed into law by President Bush last month. Popularly known as the McCain-Feingold bill (after Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Russ Feingold), this original reform of corrupt money in politics has been subjected to serious attrition. Originally, it provided for some free television and radio time for ballot-qualified candidates vying for federal office. That and other provisions were dropped in order to pick up support for passage — so much so that some observers began calling the legislation the “Cain-Gold” bill.

The core of the new law is banning “soft money” — those unlimited hundreds of millions of dollars mostly from business interests that flow only into the coffers of the political parties. But in return, McCain-Feingold had to agree to doubling “hard money” that any person could give directly to members of Congress or Presidential candidates. Beginning after the 2002 elections, individuals can give $4,000 for an entire election cycle (primary and general election) instead of $2000.

As Congressional opponents and their outside patrons chipped away at the legislation during the past four years, the outside reform groups, which have been striving for reform of the auction system of elections for over two decades, continued to bite their lips and remained in support. First, it was half a loaf is better than nothing; then it was a quarter of a loaf. Butthen it became an unwillingness to turn against the legislation, given all those thousands of dedicated hours and commitment to the idea of reform that the bill clung to in their minds.

Well, one of the long-time citizen organizations concluded that the erosion of the legislation was too much to take. The U.S. Public interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) on March 20th denounced and opposed McCain-Feingold.

In its statement, U.S. PIRG said:

“In a climate of spiraling fundraising, and in the wake of the Enron debacle, Congress had the opportunity to pass real campaign finance reform that would have reduced the influence of money on American democracy. Unfortunately, politicians were not up to the task. . . the Senate passed a soft money ‘ban’ riddled with loopholes and actually increased the amount that the wealthiest individuals can contribute to candidates.”

The partially student funded PIRG predicted that “hard money will skyrocket, soft money will go to state and local parties and independent expenditures, candidates will not spend less time fundraising, and big donors will still buy election results to put their favored candidates in office.”

The groups also predicted that President George W. Bush will become the first major party candidate to refuse to accept voluntary spending limits in the 2004 general election. One Republican campaign manager has predicted that Bush could easily raise $500 million in hard dollars — an unheard of amount.

It was not easy for U.S. PIRG to oppose the bill. But there are limits to continual concessions that defeat the purpose of the legislation. Watch for a huge increase in complexity in the federal election rules which already necessitate a very expensive software program merely for candidatecompliance. Soon small party candidates will not be able to afford the compliance costs, never mind the ballot access hurdles, just to have a chance to compete.

Badly boomerang-prone as the new law is, it did break the myth that no campaign finance reform could ever get through Congress and be signed by a Republican President. Even if it took a myth of a bill to achieve that result.

Senator Russell Feingold told me last year that he is going to introduce a bolder public financing of public elections bill soon after the McCain-Feingold bill passes. That would certainly simplify the rules as well.

U.S. PIRG, in the meantime, urges the following ways to sever the link between big money and politics: contribution limits set at a low level that average Americans can afford, mandatory spending limits, strict limits on out-of-district contributions, tax credits for small political donations, and free media for candidates.”

This is their answer to what they call the recent “sham reform that takes us backwards.” See www.pirg.org for more details.

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