WASHINGTON -- Less than a year after the most expensive election in the nation's history, the Senate opened debate yesterday on rewriting the country's campaign finance laws, arguing about whether there was too much or too little money in the system now and about what kind of changes could be made without violating the First Amendment.
But after more than five hours of often-impassioned debate, there was agreement on virtually nothing among supporters and opponents of a bipartisan bill to overhaul financing rules.
Advocates of change urged a ban on "soft money," the unlimited, unregulated contributions, as an essential step to help fix a political system awash in money.
But detractors said the better solution would be to lift all limits on contributions. They warned that the proposed restrictions were a government intrusion that would violate candidates' constitutional rights to free speech.
"Perhaps the public good would be best served not by restricting donations to campaigns but by promoting them, with full disclosure," said Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the Republican leader. "Spending money to advance your own political views is as much a part of the right of free speech as is running a free press."
But critics of the current system point to how total spending on House and Senate races, measured in constant dollars, increased to $765 million in 1996 from $318 million in 1976.
"The core problem is that there is too much money, period," said Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Democratic leader. "This is now a club for millionaires. You either have to have lots of money, or you're indebted to somebody for the rest of your life."
Congress has not seriously considered campaign finance legislation since 1994, when the House stalled until early fall on a compromise bill with the Senate. Senate Republicans then filibustered that bill to death, complaining that it protected incumbents.
The prospects for any significant changes this year are unclear at best. Both Lott and Speaker Newt Gingrich strongly oppose the bipartisan bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin.
Lott and Gingrich are championing the "lift all limits" approach. But it is going nowhere in the Senate. Senators spent yesterday outlining arguments and lines of attack that will be repeated and developed during debate that is expected to continue through next week and culminate in votes in mid-October.
The central provision of the McCain-Feingold legislation, which is supported by all 45 Senate Democrats and four Republicans, would ban soft money, which comes from corporations, unions and individuals and which political parties can use for generic purposes such as voter turnout but not for specific races.
Overcoming the public's deep-seated cynicism toward the country's political system will be difficult, supporters of the bill argued, especially in the wake of Senate hearings that revealed lurid details of influence-peddling activities in the 1996 elections.
Republican Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who heads the Senate committee investigating campaign finance and who supports the McCain-Feingold bill, offered this assessment:
"The American people look at a system where we spend so much time with our hand out for so much money from so many people who do so much business with the federal government who we're basically regulating and legislating on. They look at that system and the amounts of money that are involved nowadays. They don't have much confidence in it."
But several Republicans said that Thompson and his allies were misreading public sentiments and exaggerating the harmful effects of campaign spending.
Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is leading the fight against the McCain-Feingold bill, said federal campaign spending last year amounted to $3.89 per eligible voter, "about the price of a McDonald's value meal."
The Senate bill
Legislation to overhaul campaign finance rules would:
Ban unlimited donations of "soft money" given to political parties rather than specific candidates.
More clearly delineate whether advocacy groups are supporting issues or candidates.
Require quicker, better campaign contribution and spending disclosures and increase penalties for violations.
Bar political parties from spending for candidates who don't limit personal spending to $50,000 on their own election.
Require labor unions to tell nonunion members they can get refunds on fees used for political purposes.
SOURCE: Associated Press
Pub Date: 9/27/97