Of Poison Pills
The German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once declared that "Laws are like sausages- it's better not to see them made." Perhaps it would also be wise to avoid seeing how laws are not made- as in the current case of campaign finance reform legislation.
With considerable fanfare, the United States Senate took up the campaign finance issue this week. The proposal under debate is known as the "McCain-Feingold" bill, after its two primary sponsors, Republican John McCain of Arizona, and Democrat Russell Feingold of Wisconsin. The goal of the bill is to reduce the influence of money in American politics. Among its many provisions, McCain-Feingold would ban unlimited, unregulated "soft money" contributions to political parties by corporations, unions and wealthy individuals and prohibit unions and corporations from sponsoring advertisements aimed at supporting or opposing particular candidates or referendums in the days leading up to an election.
Although the McCain-Feingold bill has support among both Republicans and Democrats, it also faces stiff opposition from all sides of the political spectrum. Some senators oppose the bill on principle, arguing (with some support from the Supreme Court) that its provisions unconstitutionally restrict the free speech rights of individuals and corporations. Others oppose the bill for practical reasons-the current system is good for incumbents, who in general find it far easier to raise money than do their challengers.
Even politicians who oppose McCain-Feingold, however, have found it useful to speak out in favor of campaign finance reform. Democrats have lashed out at their opponents' reliance on corporate donations, tying Republicans to "big oil" and big business. Republicans have made careers out of highlighting the fundraising scandals of the Clinton-Gore administration, focusing on "Hollywood millionaires" and "liberal special interest groups."
Hence the current dilemma: politicians on both sides of the aisle want to make it look like they support campaign finance reform, but they don't necessarily want the Senate to succeed in passing meaningful legislation. Fortunately for these politicians, Washington abounds with ways to cloud image and reality. Here are just a few:
With all of these weapons at their disposal, opponents of McCain-Feingold can rest easy in the knowledge that real reform is unlikely. But what will happen if, against the odds, such reforms are enacted into law? All is not lost even then. As one supporter of McCain-Feingold admitted the other day, "Everyone recognizes that there are constitutional issues in McCain-Feingold, and everyone assumes it will end up at the Supreme Court if it passes and is signed." The legal scenario raises the very strange possibility that the best way to kill McCain-Feingold would be to pass it.
- Stage a major debate. Central to the appearance of action is a major congressional debate. The Senate has obliged by setting aside two weeks for discussion of the McCain-Feingold bill. Senators of every political stripe will descend to the well of the Senate to speak to their colleagues, their constituents, and the nation. Whatever their intentions, they will sound good.
- Offer a poison pill. A wonderful technique is to defeat legislation by improving it, or at least appearing to improve it. Under this approach, Senators will propose amendments to the bill, each designed to refine the original in one way or another. Pass enough of these improvements, and the bill will look entirely different than it did when introduced. Now opponents of the bill can defeat it on the grounds that it is flawed. Yesterday, for example, the Senate voted 70-30 to lift campaign finance limits on any candidate whose opponent is "self-funded" (a candidate's right to contribute unlimited amounts to his or her own campaign has been upheld by the Supreme Court). The Senate also raised campaign contribution limits in some cases from $1000 to $6000 per campaign. Supporters of the original bill are already warning that these and similar provisions will end chances for real reform.
- Offer an alternative. Since the name of the game is to support reform while killing it, a useful approach is to offer an alternative measure that looks like it will do the job, but really doesn't. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) has done just that, proposing his own version of campaign finance reform. The Hagel bill-which has already garnered the support of top Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott-would limit, but not eliminate, soft money. Supporters of McCain-Feingold fear that the Hagel version would attract enough supporters to doom their more sweeping reform measure.
- Count on the House of Representatives, or the White House. Even if the Senate somehow manages to pass McCain-Feingold in something resembling its original form, opponents of the bill can always hope that the House will refuse to pass the measure, or that the White House will veto it. In some ways this scenario is the best of all worlds, since Senators would be able to claim that they supported reform while not having to live with the consequences. This is an old trick, but a good one. Properly managed, the House and Senate can play ping-pong with such proposals, with one chamber taking the lead now and the other a few years late. But as long as both houses don't act at the same time, no reform bill can pass.