Thanks to McCain, we'll have campaign finance reform

By Martin T. Meehan, 3/22/2000

ooking at some of his recent comments, it appears that Texas Governor George W. Bush views Arizona Senator John McCain's presidential run as little more than training for the ''big fight'' against Vice President Al Gore. However, the legacy of McCain's presidential run is much more than a less sluggish Bush campaign. McCain has shifted the debate from whether there will be campaign finance reform to whether there will be meaningful campaign finance reform.

Before McCain's run for the presidency, the main debate in Congress over campaign finance reform centered on whether it was even necessary.

Indeed, those who sought to sidetrack the bipartisan campaign finance reform bills introduced by Republican Representative Chris Shays of Connecticut and me in the House and McCain and Democratic Senator Russ Feingold in the Senate insisted that insofar as there was a campaign finance ''problem,'' that problem amounted simply to violations of existing law. The suggestion that the loophole-ridden campaign finance laws were a problem in their own right was met with scorn.

Then came the McCain campaign, and the ground shifted. John McCain went to New Hampshire and courageously made reform a centerpiece of his campaign.

The US Supreme Court bucked up McCain's case for reform when it reaffirmed the constitutionality of limits on campaign contributions.

Ultimately, the people of New Hampshire rewarded McCain for his tireless and principled support for campaign finance reform. And then what happened?

Governor Bush scrambled to come up with his own reform proposal. At a speech at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Pat Buchanan called for a ban on soft money contributions to the political parties. Furthermore, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the ringleader of the Senate filibuster blocking the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill from a final vote, decided to kick off Senate Rules Committee hearings on campaign finance reform this week and tentatively scheduled a date for committee action on legislation. Finally, the vice president has vowed that campaign finance reform would be a top priority for a Gore administration.

Obviously, it is no longer acceptable to dismiss the need for campaign finance reform. Yet a change in the landscape on reform does not necessarily clear the path to the enactment of reform. Proponents of reform formerly had to make the case that tightening our campaign finance laws was necessary.

With most politicians now at least claiming to accept the need for reform, the current challenge for those truly interested in cleaning up our campaign finance system is to point out which proposals constitute meaningful reform and insist that those proposals become law.

Above all, meaningful reform would truly close the loopholes that permit corporations, labor unions, and wealthy individuals to make unlimited soft money contributions to the political parties. Soft money is making a mockery of our current campaign finance system. Unions, corporations, and wealthy persons evade campaign contribution limits by giving mega-sums to the political parties, which then spend them on what clearly are campaign commercials.

Soft money contributions to the national parties alone are expected to total more than $500 million during this election cycle, about double that of the previous cycle. Indeed, the television ads that voters will view over the next few months, clearly touting one or the other party's presidential candidate, are likely to have been paid for with soft money contributed by a given candidate's long-time financial supporters.

The Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform legislation - which passed the House last year - and its Senate cousin, the McCain-Feingold bill, would truly close the soft money loophole by banning soft money contributions to the national political parties and preventing state parties from serving as easy conduits for the expenditure of soft money to influence federal elections. These bills clearly meet the standard of meaningful campaign finance reform.

On the other hand, proposals that allow wealthy individuals to make unlimited soft money contributions to national political parties, such as that offered by George W. Bush, aren't meaningful reform. Unfortunately, the legislation recently introduced by Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel is also flawed. While the Hagel bill is well intended, its current soft money provisions contain so many loopholes as to promise little real improvement upon the status quo.

Indeed, when combined with legislative language raising existing limits on contributions made directly to federal candidates, these proposals would result in greater political influence for the wealthy than they enjoy under existing law.

Thanks to John McCain, prospects for the enactment of campaign reform have never looked brighter. The challenge now is to ensure that enacted reform is in fact meaningful reform. The many Americans of both parties who embraced the McCain campaign desire and deserve nothing less.

Martin T. Meehan represents the 5th Congressional District of Massachusetts and serves on the House Judiciary and House Armed Services Committees.