Senate Votes to Pass "Flawed" Campaign Finance Reform Legislation

March 20, 2002

In their zeal to produce any measure of campaign finance reform, the US Senate today voted 60 to 40 to approve the current bill which will now go to the President to be signed into law. Despite all the wrangling and controversy over the legislation, one area of agreements remains between those opposing the measure and those promoting it.

All agree the bill is flawed!

Campaign Reform Wins Passage; Bush Will Sign
Wed Mar 20, 7:59 PM ET

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Landmark legislation to reduce the influence of money in U.S. politics won final congressional approval on Wednesday, ending a seven-year struggle on Capitol Hill and drawing a quick vow from President Bush that he will sign it into law.

The Senate passed the legislation, approved five weeks ago by the House of Representatives, on a 60-40 vote.

Opponents promptly shifted attention to the courts where they have vowed to challenge the largely Democratic-backed bill on grounds it would violate constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech.

In a written statement a few hours after the Senate vote, Bush said he would sign the measure but called it “flawed in some areas.”

“The legislation makes some important progress on the timeliness of disclosure, individual contribution limits and banning soft money from corporations and labor unions, but it does present some legitimate constitutional questions,” he said. “I continue to believe the best reform is full and timely disclosure of campaign contributions.”

Seven years in the making, the campaign finance reform legislation gained momentum earlier this year with the collapse of energy giant Enron Corp., which critics say lavished campaign contributions on both Republicans and Democrats to gain access to Capitol Hill and influence policy.

The measure would outlaw hundreds of millions of dollars in unlimited donations, known as “soft money,” that have been made in recent years to national political parties.

It would also sharply limit such contributions to state and local political parties, restrict broadcast ads by outside groups shortly before elections and double to $2,000 the amount of highly regulated “hard money” contributions to individual congressional and presidential candidates.

The measure would implement the biggest overhaul of U.S. campaign finance laws since limits were imposed on donations to candidates a quarter century ago. But many in both parties remained uncertain about who would eventually benefit most from the changes.

CURB BIG DONORS

Proponents contend that the bill would help curb big donors from effectively buying access to the halls of power where they can influence legislation.

“Let us take the power away from special interests and give it back to the American people where it belongs,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat.

After years of political maneuvering, the measure gained momentum earlier this year with the collapse of energy giant Enron Corp., which critics say lavished campaign contributions on both Republicans and Democrats to gain access to Capitol Hill and influence policy.

But a court fight loomed with Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican and chief congressional foe of the bill, preparing to be the lead plaintiff.

A number of groups have also voiced concerns about the measure, including the American Civil Liberties UnionĀ  and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce .

Standing on the Senate floor, McConnell offered a preview of his challenge, which is almost certain to end up in the U.S. Supreme Court . “I would like to begin by citing the ultimate campaign reform — the First Amendment to the Constitution: Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech,” McConnell said.

Sen. John McCain, the maverick Arizona Republican who made campaign finance reform a centerpiece of his failed 2000 White House bid and brought it to the forefront of the nation’s political debate, said he was confident proponents would prevail.

“I think we will do fine in court,” said McCain. “I’m not overly concerned, but we have to be prepared.”

Up until Senate passage, there had been no official word from the White House on whether Bush would sign the bill. Yet Democrats and Republicans said they expected him to do so.

As Daschle put it before Wednesday’s vote, “I think he will do it because I think he knows it is the right thing to do.”

Eleven Republicans joined 48 Democrats and the chamber’s lone independent in voting to pass the bill. Two Democrats joined 38 Republicans in voting against it.

Political attorneys have already begun to comb the bill for loopholes and experts predict the measure will not necessarily stem the flow of money but merely redirect it, with much of the money going from national political parties to outside groups.

“This bill won’t fix every problem in our campaign finance system,” said Sen. Russell Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who, with McCain, has been a leading proponent in the Senate for reform.

“This bill won’t miraculously erase distrust and suspicion of Congress overnight,” Feingold said. “It won’t completely end the primacy of money in politics …. But this bill is a step in the right direction. It’s a big step.”

It remains an open question who will be hurt most by the bill, Democrats or Republicans, whose national parties together raised nearly $500 million in “soft money” in the 2000 elections.

Clearly a number of Democrats and Republicans are concerned about the impact of the pending law on their own re-election chances.

This was demonstrated last month when House proponents, in an effort to muster support, agreed to push back the bill’s effective date until one day after this November’s congressional contests.