Finance Reform Within Sight

House of Representatives should pass an unchanged McCain-Feingold bill

After two weeks of debate on campaign finance reform, the nation should be proud of its Senate. With yesterday’s passage of the McCain-Feingold bill, the body has bucked its leadership and defied the expectation that a session so divided would produce only gridlock. Through compromises reached between reasonable members of opposing parties, the public’s demand for reform was translated into effective legislation. The result of this remarkable effort is a fair, bipartisan bill that will pave the way for more such open debates, instead of superfluous party-line votes and prepared statements that members read into the record to serve as “receipts” for the donations of wealthy individuals, unions, and corporations.

Thanks to the efforts of Sen. John S. McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.) and host of others on both sides of the aisle, we are now much closer to the end of the unregulated, unlimited “soft money” contributions that poured over $500 million into the last election cycle. This bill will not end the influence of money in politics, and a comprehensive solution would require further measures such as public financing of federal elections. But McCain-Feingold would undoubtedly represent a positive, substantive, productive step, especially given the current balance of political power.

Yesterday’s 59-41 vote, however, only marks the beginning of a long road for McCain-Feingold. The House of Representatives, a possible conference committee and the president’s desk still lie ahead, and Republican leaders have vowed to kill the reform at each stage. It would be a profound shame if the House were to miss this opportunity and waste the Senate’s hard work to find middle ground. It has taken nearly six years for the McCain-Feingold bill to advance just this far, and to upset the delicate compromises that have shaped it would only threaten the potential for any reform.

The challenges to the bill will come both from the left and the right. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) has said he will “try anything I can” to prevent the bill’s passage, and our own Rep. Martin Meehan (D-Mass.), who has sponsored the House version in the past, has expressed strong reservations about raising individual spending limits. We are confident that the members who passed this bill in the last Congress despite the parliamentary machinations of the Republican leadership would be able to do so again. But we are highly concerned by the rumors of defections from the Democrats, who have fought heartily for the bill in the last few years.

The key proposal in the bill is its elimination of soft money, the unregulated donations that have removed all accountability from political fundraising. The provision that most worries Democrats, the added increase in hard money spending limits, is necessary both to garner Republican support and to help challengers of incumbents run without the benefit of party soft money. These funds will be regulated, and unlike soft money, candidates will be publically accountable for receiving them. Furthermore, the limits have not been raised with inflation since they were set in 1974 keeping the rates tied to inflation in the future will eliminate the need for recurrent and vituperative debates over when to raise them.

The new provisions on issue ads should also be retained in the House of Representatives. The bill limits television advertisements by for-profit corporations or labor unions that refer to a specific candidate within two months of a general election. This measure will help prevent corporations and unions from exploiting a loophole in the election law that allows them to buy campaign ads as long as they avoid the magic words “vote for” or “elect.” In compensation, the bill will use the Federal Communications Commission’s authority over broadcasters to mandate discounted rates for candidates, and it will not limit the use of radio ads, print ads, direct mail, voter guides, Internet pages, or any other communications.

To avoid a potentially fatal conference committee, the House should pass unchanged the Senate’s version of McCain-Feingold. The dangers the bill might pose to Democratic or Republican election strategy are less important than the dangers the current system poses to Americans’ faith in government. The American people have expressed an unambiguous desire for reform. Any representative who abandons the bill as soon as it has a good chance of passing—or any president who vetoes a once-in-a-decade chance at reform—will not be forgiven lightly. McCain-Feingold has gained both the popular and the bipartisan support that it needs to constitute a strong foundation for reform. Both the House and President Bush would be wise to build on, not tear down, that foundation.