House votes for a ban on soft money

Bill is seen shaping 2000 race

By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff, 09/15/99

ASHINGTON - In a vote filled with implications for the 2000 campaign, the House late last night approved an overhaul of the campaign finance system and a ban on unlimited contributions of soft money in the upcoming election.

The bill passed in the House, 252-177. It still faces an uphill fight in the Senate, which last year killed a similar measure. But even if the bill does not become law, it could still have an impact on the presidential race. The chief Senate sponsor, Republican John McCain of Arizona, plans to make the matter a central part of his primary race, and it is likely to become a major issue in the fall campaign, as well.

The measure is also notable for what it would not do. For example, there is no cap on aggregate contributions. If one were adopted, it could keep Texas Governor George W. Bush from continuing his unprecedented fund-raising pace or could block Steve Forbes from using his fortune to finance his campaign.

There would also be no change on the $1,000-per-person contribution limit and no move toward the kind of public financing that some advocates say is the only way to level the political playing field.

''This is only a first step,'' said Representative Martin T. Meehan, a Lowell Democrat who cosponsored the House bill with Representative Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican. ''We've got a long way to go.''

Still, by banning soft money, the bill seeks to end one of the most controversial practices in American politics: the contribution of unlimited and unregulated funds from individuals and corporations to political parties.

In the last presidential campaign, the Republican and Democratic parties used soft money to run millions of dollars' worth of commercials that had an enormous influence on the election, prompting a congressional investigation of foreign contributions that proved an embarrassment to the Clinton White House.

Earlier yesterday, the House defeated several Republican-sponsored amendments, including one that would raise the limit on individual contributions from $1,000 to $3,000 and another that would classify any ad mentioning a candidate's name or voting record as a campaign ad.

Republicans, in arguing for higher limits on campaign contributions, pointed out that Governor Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey recently decided not to run for the US Senate partly because of difficulties in raising the necessary funds. But several Democrats retorted that George W. Bush didn't seem to have any difficulty raising an estimated $50 million for his presidential campaign, despite the same limitations.

The campaign-finance measure, similar to one approved by the House last year and filibustered in the Senate, was supported by the vast majority of Democrats. But the measure could not have been passed without the backing of a sizable number of Republicans, led by Shays, who were willing to buck the party leadership in the GOP-controlled chamber.

Some analysts believe that a soft-money ban could be helpful to the Democratic Party, which has less soft money at its disposal than the GOP. By August, the Republican National Committee had raised $27 million for the 2000 campaign, compared to $19 million raised by Democrats. By Election Day, the parties could collect a total of more than $300 million and perhaps as much as $500 million in soft money, according to some projections.

Even with a ban on soft money, Republicans would still maintain a large advantage in raising hard money, Meehan said. Indeed, some Democrats objected to the measure yesterday because raising soft money is the only way they can counter the GOP's hard-money advantage.

The debate yesteday was filled with side issues, especially the question of whether antiabortion groups would be harmed by the measure. The National Right to Life group, for example, opposed the bill yesterday, saying that it would inhibit free speech by requiring disclosure of donor names.

Representative J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, the chairman of the House Republican Conference, said in a letter to his colleagues that the Shays-Meehan bill would rewrite the Constitution. Watts provided a mock revision: ''Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech unless that speech supports or opposes a cause, or is made anonymously, or occurs in September or October of an even-numbered year, or is intended to educate the public about candidates' voting records.''

Among the bill's key provisions are:

Soft money. Under the current system, individuals can give unlimited amounts of unregulated soft money to political parties, with contributions sometimes exceeding $100,000. Such donations would no longer be allowed, and candidates also could no longer take soft money from state parties. Individuals would be allowed to give no more than $30,000 in regulated hard money to parties and candidates, up from the current $25,000.

In an effort to limit use of soft money that has already been raised, the bill also requires that television and radio commercials that are broadcast within 60 days of an election and include the name of a candidate must be paid for with hard money. Similar restrictions would apply to commercials that include an ''unambiguous'' effort to elect or defeat a candidate.

Disclosure of independent spending. Many special-interest groups spend millions of dollars on advertisements that seek to boost or defeat a candidate. While such ads would still be allowed, there would be some limitations on contributions, and the names of donors would have to be disclosed.

Labor money. Unions, which are among the largest soft-money contributors to the Democratic Party, could no longer give such funds. In addition, unions would have to disclose the names of those who contributed money used in labor-sponsored advertising campaigns. Democrats said this would offset the loss of soft money, but some Republicans complained that the influence of union funds would be greater than ever.