WASHINGTON -- Sen. John McCain, whose powerful personality is willing his campaign finance reform to passage, sets a loftier goal than the bipartisan majority supporting his bill. But McCain and his followers are equally sure to be disappointed.
McCain sees the elimination of unregulated ("soft") campaign contributions as the antidote to an Internal Revenue code written by special interests and swelling congressional pork barrel spending. In truth, it is hard to find anybody else who seriously believes tax lobbyists will be less effective or pork-dispensers like Ted Stevens and Robert Byrd forestalled because of McCain-Feingold.
The vision of most McCain-Feingold supporters is considerably more mundane. During the debate, they exposed their desire to make their lives easier by being relieved from both onerous fund-raising and criticism by outside organizations. In truth, they may spend more time raising money under McCain-Feingold, and there is no chance that the voices senators find so obnoxious will be silenced.
"We have taken pretty good care of ourselves in this debate," Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told colleagues Thursday, as the bill he vowed to defeat neared passage. The outrageous provision guaranteeing candidates the cheapest television advertising rates was just the beginning. While chanting that they were exorcising Washington's evil, supporting senators revealed they wanted more pleasant political lives.
They despise raising money. Sen. Christopher Dodd, the bill's floor manager, declared that in his state of Connecticut, "you have to raise something like $10,000 almost daily in order to raise the money to wage an effective defense of your seat." Yet, the end of soft money means individual senators will have to work hard at getting $2,000 (up from the $1,000 maximum) in hard money from each contributor.
What senators hate even more is being criticized. Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont complained that in one campaign he "had to face seeing ads on television which totally distort the facts and say terrible things. You watch a 20 percent lead keep going down." Such anguish resulted in the bill restricting mention of a candidate's name in advertisements during the last 60 days of a campaign, seemingly violating constitutional guarantee of free speech. Even if this survives a court test, however, interest groups will find ways to raise and spend money.
The prospect for McCain-Feingold becoming law is the end product of McConnell's uncompromising opposition to campaign reform. "Hell's going to freeze over before we get rid of soft money," he said in 1999. Conservative Republicans like Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and then Rep. Linda Smith of Washington (who ran for the Senate in 1998) unsuccessfully opposed McConnell's intransigence as damaging to the party. McConnell as Senate campaign chairman presided over disappointing campaigns in 1998 and 2000, culminating in a loss of the Senate's GOP majority.
But Hagel and Smith wanted something different from the bill roaring toward President Bush's desk. Smith had suggested limiting contributions from outside their constituencies, an idea that appalled lawmakers accustomed to bringing bags of money back from Manhattan and Hollywood. She also pushed "paycheck protection" -- empowering union members to prevent their dues money from involuntarily being used for political campaigns.
Democrats responded that shareholders also should be able to opt out of corporate contributions, and Republicans complied by changing their proposal. Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York then sprung the trap. "Shares in corporations are alienable and change hands in virtually instantaneous transactions millions of times each day," Schumer said. The amendment having been made unworkable, Republicans abandoned the effort.
Paycheck protection was listed by candidate George W. Bush as essential to reform. So was the unfettered right of private groups to express themselves and a prohibition on lobbyists contributing to members of Congress during congressional sessions. None of these requirements passed, but no Bush veto is expected.
This outcome shows the effectiveness of a senator with both a national following and a reputation for unpredictability and anger. McCain has intimidated rather than convinced. Why engage in a bloody fight against a popular figure, even if it means consenting to flawed legislation?
John McCain does not think his great legislative triumph is flawed. A visionary rather than a technician, he seems to really believe elimination of soft money will transform Washington. The prayer is that it does not make it worse.