McCain, Bradley pledge war on 'soft' money

Pair court independent voters in unusual joint meeting, to be televised tonight

By Ron Fournier, Associated Press, 12/16/99

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A look at the some of the rules of the campaign finance system and what critics say is wrong with them:

Raising money:
Most an individual can give to a candidate in an election: $1,000.
Most a political action committee can give to a candidate in an election: $5,000. Corporations and unions, which can't give to candidates, set up PACs to pool donations from their employees or members.
Most that other political committees - such as a lawmaker's re-election committee - can give to another candidate's committee in a calendar year: $5,000.
Soft money: These donations to parties, to be used for party-building activities such as efforts to mobilize voters, are unlimited and unregulated.
Foreign prohibition: Foreign governments, individuals (except immigrants with green cards) and corporations may not contribute. But U.S. subsidiaries of foreign companies may.
Matching funds: Presidential candidates in primaries can get taxpayer financing if they want it and qualify. U.S. Treasury matches the first $250 of each individual's contribution to a candidate. To qualify, a candidate must raise sufficient contributions in 20 states and agree to spending limits.
Campaign grants: The Democratic and Republican presidential nominees receive government grants to cover all their general election expenses. In return, they agree to limit their spending to what they get from taxpayers.

Spending the money:
Independent expenditures: An individual or group can spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate the election or defeat of a candidate, as long as a candidate's campaign is not involved in the advocacy.
Primary limits: Primary presidential candidates taking matching funds will be able to spend about $40 million each. Candidates who do not take matching funds can spend as much as they want.
Issue ads: Groups can sponsor issue ads that are not regulated as long as they do not endorse or oppose specific candidates.

Disclosing the money:
Candidates, party committees and PACs must file periodic reports disclosing what they raise and spend. Candidates must identify all PACs and party committees that give them contributions, and identify individuals who give them more than $200 in a year.

Critics say:
A company or union can have an outsized impact by motivating its employees or members to contribute to the same candidate.
PACs are the giving arms of special interests and most PAC money goes to incumbents.
The ability to shift money between candidate committees means contributors who give to one politician may find their money helping another.
Soft money allows corporations, unions and individuals to get around contribution limits. Money may be used for party-sponsored issue advertising that can help or damage candidates without explicitly advocating anyone's election or defeat.
Issue ads by groups may be thinly disguised endorsements or attacks on candidates, and the sponsors do not have to disclose the source of their contributions or how much they are spending.
Lax scrutiny may allow foreign interests to interfere.
Presidential spending limits put candidates at a disadvantage against those who have enough money to forgo matching funds, and who therefore can spend freely.
Election regulators are so understaffed that they do not investigate problems until long after an election.
Candidates would be under less pressure to raise and spend money if broadcasters gave them free air time.


* Two looking to sway independent voters


CLAREMONT, N.H. -- In a summit of presidential underdogs, Republican John McCain and Democrat Bill Bradley courted independent voters today and jabbed their front-running rivals with a joint pledge to pursue "genuine campaign finance reform."

The Arizona senator and former New Jersey senator signed a statement before their unusual joint appearance, saying: "We pledge that as the nominees for the office of president of the United States we will not allow our political parties to spend soft money for our presidential campaigns, and we commit to working together toward genuine campaign finance reform."

So-called "soft money" refers to unlimited, unregulated donations that are supposed to be used for party-building activities. Increasingly, the money has become a major loophole in campaign finance laws, used to indirectly aid presidential and congressional campaigns.

McCain and Bradley have mounted surprisingly strong challenges to their parties' favorites -- Vice President Al Gore for the Democrats and Gov. George W. Bush for Republicans. Gore supports a soft money ban; Bush does not.

In his opening remarks, McCain reminded voters that Gore said there was "no controlling legal authority" that forbade his questionable fund-raising activities during the 1996 presidential campaign.

"I want to tell the vice president and everybody else that when I'm president there will be a controlling legal authority," McCain said. "I can understand why the vice president would oppose it but I can't understand why Governor Bush would oppose such a thing."

Bradley, who attacked Gore's record on the issue this week, targeted Bush with his toughest remarks.

"I think he has ... snubbed his nose at the public finance laws," Bradley said, referring to the Texan's decision to bypass spending limits to raise record amounts of money. Aides said Bradley wanted to focus on issues in the town hall without appearing to take potshots at Gore.

He did slip in one jab.

Told that Gore has supported a similar soft money ban in the 2000 election -- a position long held by the vice president -- Bradley said, "I'm glad he's finally come over."

Their high-profile town hall meeting and joint news conference drew dozens of journalists to the town of Claremont. It was held at the same site where President Clinton and Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich promised in 1995 to form a commission to study campaign finance changes.

That commission never materialized.

Taking advantage of attention given to the event, Bradley's campaign began airing a new television ad in New Hampshire and Iowa. In it, the former senator says campaign finance reform is key to "virtually everything else" he wants to accomplish as president, including improving health care.

Though both served long stints in Congress and have raised tens of millions of dollars in political donations, McCain and Bradley are running as Washington outsiders committed to scrubbing the system clean.

Beyond a soft-money ban, Bradley said he supported public financing of elections and free television time for candidates -- two positions Gore has endorsed, as well. McCain supports free television time, but doesn't think taxpayers should pay for campaigns.

McCain and Bradley need strong support from independents, particularly in a state such as New Hampshire that opens its party primary to all voters. Campaign finance reform is a compelling issue to many independents.

The strategy carries a risk for McCain, because Republican leaders -- including Bush -- and special interest allies object to changes in campaign finance laws that could upset their fund-raising advantage over Democrats. The Arizona senator is urging rank-and-file Republicans to see the issue as a conservative cause, arguing Wednesday that special interests fight against cuts in government, tax reform and sensible military spending.

Bradley's problem isn't his party as much as it is Gore, who won't let the former lawmaker seize the campaign finance reform mantle without a fight.

In a full-page ad in today's editions of the Claremont Eagle Times, the vice president praises McCain for showing "real courage" in fighting for campaign finance reform. He also urges voters to "look beyond the rhetoric of the candidates to the actual record."

There was no mention of Bradley, but none was needed: Gore clearly implied that he, not Bradley, is the true champion of political reform.

Leading up to the session, Bradley accused Gore of paying mere "lip service" to reform. He has talked darkly of the 1996 campaign finance controversy that entangled Gore.

Analysts in both parties said McCain and Bradley stood to benefit from the meeting.

"I think it's a win-win for both of them," said Democratic consultant Bill Carrick of California, who is not tied to a presidential campaign. "They are using campaign finance reform to differentiate themselves from their opponents."

"It might be a gimmick, but it's a good one," said GOP consultant David Carney of New Hampshire.