Soft-money ban is called no cure-all

As Senate takes up funding bill, some point to potential for abuse

By Bob Hohler, Globe Staff, 10/19/99

ASHINGTON - The Senate, in a landmark vote today, could change the way US political campaigns are waged and funded.

But the changes, aimed at reducing the influence of big money in elections, would be unlikely to achieve the goal, lawmakers on both sides of the high-stakes debate said yesterday.

Under a scaled-down plan to overhaul the nation's campaign finance system, the Senate could vote to ban the raising and spending of the unlimited and largely unregulated contributions known as soft money that were linked to the worst fund-raising abuses in the 1996 elections.

Soft money accounts for as much as half the estimated $800 million that national parties plan to raise and spend in the 2000 elections.

But by stripping the parties of soft money, Congress could create the ''unintended consequence'' of triggering a proliferation of spending by independent advocacy groups intent on influencing the nation's elections, according to senators on both sides of the issue. Those ad campaigns would not be regulated by federal election laws.

The result would be ''a national political debate fought by surrogates,'' said Senator Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey, who heads the Senate Democratic election committee. ''Over our heads will be a far larger contest fought by the AFL-CIO, the Christian Coalition, antiabortion groups, chemical companies, automobile companies, and steel companies that will spend millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars on advocacy.''

The measure's chief sponsors - Senators John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat - said they settled on the soft-money ban because they believed they would be unable to garner the 60 votes needed to break a GOP filibuster on a more comprehensive plan to overhaul the campaign finance system.

The broader plan would ban soft money and restrict the so-called ''issue advocacy'' spending that lawmakers predicted would mushroom under the McCain-Feingold measure. The House voted 252-177 last month to approve the more sweeping proposal, sponsored by Representatives Martin T. Meehan, a Lowell Democrat, and Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican.

Meehan, like many other advocates for changing the way elections are financed, said the soft-money ban alone would mark progress.

''But if the soft-money bill passes without reining in sham issue ads, then all the money from corporations and wealthy individuals that went to the parties will be funneled to outside groups to do those sham ads,'' Meehan said.

Not all of it, predicted Anthony Corrado, a government professor at Colby College in Maine who specializes in campaign finance. He said many corporate leaders and wealthy individuals who have contributed massive amounts of soft money in recent years have done so only at the prompting of party officials and have expressed little desire to give to other entities.

''I think if you adopt the ban, a significant amount of money now being funneled into the system will dry up,'' Corrado said. ''There may be some movement toward the issue ads by organized interests, say from the tobacco companies and some of the ideological groups. But, overall, it would be a step in the right direction.''

In a major showdown today, the Senate will consider whether to end the Republican filibuster and permit final votes on both the McCain-Feingold and Shays-Meehan measures. A majority of senators have expressed support for both bills, but they remain several votes short of the 60 needed to cut off the filibuster.

Of the two alternatives, however, the McCain-Feingold bill is considered more likely to pick up the GOP votes needed for passage.

Senator John F. Kerry, who favors the Shays-Meehan alternative, said the McCain-Feingold measure could be broadened in a House-Senate conference committee to iron out differences between the competing versions.

He said the White House could also play a role in the conference committee, although President Clinton's influence could be diminished amid his budget standoff with GOP congressional leaders.

Still, the McCain-Feingold measure remains the best hope for progress among advocates of overhauling the election system.

''It's clearly incremental, but it's a critically important increment,'' said Ellen Miller, executive director of Public Campaign, which advocates public funding of elections. ''No campaign finance reform deserves the name `reform' if it doesn't shut down soft money.''

It was the pursuit of soft money in 1996 that prompted President Clinton to open the White House for major party donors to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom and sip coffee in the Roosevelt Room. The Democratic Party accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars that year in soft money from allegedly illegal foreign sources, including $366,000 that was raised by a party operative, Johnny Chung, with ties to China.

In describing the soft-money scandal, Senator Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican, quoted Chung as saying, ''I see the White House is like a subway. You have to put in the coins to open the gates.''

Opponents of changing the campaign finance system argued that current law already prohibits the alleged abuses that occurred in 1996, and they asserted that further restricting soft-money giving would be tantamount to violating free speech.