Bush proposes campaign finance overhaul

By Anne E. Kornblut, Globe Staff, 2/16/2000

RMO, S.C. - One week after adopting the informal stump style of Senator John S. McCain, Governor George W. Bush yesterday took up his opponent's signature issue, declaring himself ''a reformer when it comes to how we fund our campaigns'' and pledging new limits on lobbyist donations.

Bush said he was simply underscoring a longstanding priority of his own. He denied the initiative sought to muddy McCain's image as a lonely crusader for reform. But in unveiling a new campaign-finance proposal just four days before the crucial primary here - and unsettling congressional Republicans in the process - Bush appeared anxious to undercut McCain in any possible way.

The most striking of the Bush proposals is his ban on lobbyist donations to members of Congress during legislative sessions - a notion that drew quick criticism across a wide spectrum, from congressional Republicans to campaign-finance reform advocates.

Bush accused wealthy lobbyists of wielding undue influence with Congress - an extension of his recent charge that McCain has spoken out of both sides of his mouth, opposing the campaign finance system while accepting, as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, contributions from executives of firms with interests before the committee.

''These are reforms that will make the system work better,'' he said. ''These are real reforms. These are wholesale reforms. These are reforms that respect individuals.''

Bush was clearly trying to shore up his recent description of himself as a ''reformer.'' And, in focusing on lobbyists, he picked a target that many believe resonates with voters. However, Bush's remedy prompted criticism from many who said it would be impractical - if not outright unconstitutional - to limit federal campaign donations to a particular time period or to cut off a particular type of contributor.

Larry Makinson, director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said lobbyists would still find ways to donate large sums to officials anyway, timing their donations to avoid the legislative session. Scott Harshbarger, director of Common Cause, said the plan did not do enough to enact real change, calling Bush's announcement a ''spur-of-the-moment, seat-of-the-pants hodgepodge.'' Several nonpartisan advocates agreed that simply limiting the timetable for lobbyists would not prevent them from giving money in the hopes of influencing legislation.

Said Mark Buse, an aide to McCain on the Senate Commerce Committee: ''If there's a connection [between donations and legislation], let's not create some false pretense that a fund-raiser on a Tuesday is different from a fund-raiser on a Saturday or a fund-raiser in August. Let's be honest about this.''

Republican leaders in Congress have long opposed a sweeping overhaul of the campaign finance system, and McCain has suffered for his efforts to enact one. His legislation, co-sponsored with Democratic Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, would ban so-called ''soft money'' - largely unregulated donations to party organizations. Although a similar legislation passed the House, the latest McCain-Feingold effort failed last November by a 53-47 vote, just short of the number needed to overcome a Republican filibuster.

Republican Senate aides yesterday indicated they would be no more enthusiastic about the Bush plan. One Senate aide, who supports Bush, said it would ''certainly face opposition.'' John Czwartacki, spokesman for the Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, said it was ''going to be a bitter pill to swallow.''

Bush defended the timing and the content of the announcement. He said he was confident supporters would recognize the differences between his plan and McCain's.

For days, Bush has been pointing out the ''labor loophole'' in the Arizona senator's plan. Bush said that under the current system, labor union leaders are able to use union dues for whatever political purpose they wish. When he railed against that yesterday, the crowd here cheered.

In addition to the limits on lobbyist donations and use of union dues, the Bush proposal would also ban corporate and union donations to political parties, outlaw ''roll-overs'' of donations from one political campaign account to another and require prompt posting of all political contributions on the Internet.

''I want people to know that I have a plan,'' Bush said later at a news conference. ''I've been talking about it ever since I've been on the trail.... And somehow, people keep asking me, they say, `When are you going to have a campaign funding reform plan? ' There should be no question in anybody's mind that I'm now on the record with a plan.''

McCain welcomed Bush to the campaign finance reform discussion, and said he would be happy to discuss a real substantive proposal. But he did poke fun at what appeared to be Bush's adoption of his every move. ''The next thing you know he's going to be moving to Arizona,'' McCain said.