Beyond McCain-Feingold

Article excerpt

The Senate's passage of McCain-Feingold was welcome if only as a comeuppance to the Trent Lotts and Mitch McConnells who had arrogantly defied popular sentiment by keeping the bill under wraps for six years. There were several factors that made the time right for McFein--including a strategic calculation by the parties that they had reached soft-money parity--but paramount among them was the prevailing climate of popular disgust with the sale of the government to the highest bidder. For this the interest groups that helped raise public consciousness with a steady flow of statistics and gamy anecdotes about the American way of bribery and extortion deserve great credit. Even George Bush has mumbled that he would sign a campaign finance reform bill, which doesn't say much for present legislative efforts but is a tribute to the critical mass reached by pro-reform sentiment in the country.

The fact that the Senate was even able to debate the bill seemed a freshet of democracy released by a spring thaw. Once the threat of filibuster and suppression by the leadership was lifted, a feisty debate bloomed on the floor. During the colloquy ending in the 60-40 rejection of one "compromise" that would have repealed a 1907 law banning direct contributions from corporations, some of the fiercest denunciations of corporate influence were heard since, well, 1907. Although Paul Wellstone's amendment to allow states to apply public financing systems to their own federal office races failed, it drew the support of thirty-six senators and more than seventy major groups--labor, enviro, black, Latino, religious.

But let's not get carried away. The bill that finally passed does little to alter a system pushed to the brink of plutocracy by the obscene power of money (note Bush's tax cut, incorporated in the budget bill the Senate next took up, so blatantly weighted toward his wealthy supporters). And it bore little resemblance to the measure John McCain and Russ Feingold originally proposed, which promised a ban on unregulated soft money and "bundling" (whereby givers maximize their influence by pooling their contributions), limits on spending by candidates and political action committees and provisions for free TV time.

The struggle to win Republican co-sponsors cost the bill all these reforms save the soft-money ban. But coming off a 2000 campaign that saw an unregulated $500 million flush through the political process, the passage of that ban was a meaningful achievement. …