Feingold's new gimmick

In his never-ending quest for campaign finance reform, Russ Feingold has been calling out monied special interests before important Senate votes.

By Jake Tapper
Published August 19, 1999 1:44PM (UTC)
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Russ Feingold, the iconoclastic Democratic senator from Wisconsin, has learned an important lesson in his efforts to limit the impact of money on politics -- if you can't beat 'em, just taunt 'em a little. Serving as a kind of one-man full disclosure act, Feingold has begun prefacing the debate over various bills with announcements of who has been working behind the scenes to influence the outcome.

The new tactic has brought a game-show feel to Feingold's speeches, with the Wisconson senator playing the role of Don Pardo, announcing the corporate sponsorships.

It's the latest gimmick in Feingold's ongoing crusade to illuminate what goes on behind the scenes in Washington. The world according to Russ goes something like this: Say some obscure, big money policy battle in D.C. pits the wealthy National Association in Support of Evil against the relatively poor American Association of Gumdrops & Bunny Rabbits.

The National Association in Support of Evil, or NASE, pours dollar after dollar into lobbying and PAC donations to key members of the House and Senate. The American Association of Gumdrops & Bunny Rabbits (AAG&BR) tries to lobby its few, outgunned friends on the Hill. It attempts to stir up media interest in the legislative battle, but nobody's interested.

Exploiting the soft-money loophole in the campaign finance laws, NASE funnels hundreds of thousand of dollars into the bank accounts of the Democratic and Republican national committees. Pretty soon a bill sails through the legislative process that NASE lobbyists could have written themselves.

It's not quite the way they taught it to us on "SchoolHouse Rock" -- but it's more or less how Washington works these days.

Feingold's new gimmick was born on May 20, just before the Senate took up this year's Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act. The Wisconsin Democrat pointed out that a last-minute change to the bill backed by big-money mining interests would have changed mining policy to the detriment of the environment.

"Obviously this kind of a change requires a full, careful and open debate," he said on the Senate floor. "It just can't get the kind of attention it needs when it is quietly slipped into an emergency supplemental appropriations bill that we are only going to debate for three hours. Of course, that is precisely the reason the advocates of the rider have done it this way."

Feingold went on to tell his colleagues that "PACs associated with the members of the National Mining Association and other mining-related PACs contributed more than $29 million to congressional campaigns from January 1993 to December 1998. Mining soft money contributions totaled $10.6 million during the same six-year period."

"It's the nature of how Washington works," says Karen Batra, media relations manager for the National Mining Association. "But if he's going to do that, he needs to do it with both sides of the issue. He didn't report how much environmental groups have contributed."

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, mining interests donated $3.8 million to parties and candidates from '97-98; environmental groups donated $814,712 during that same time.

Feingold's press secretary said his boss has invited his colleagues to chip in with lists of their own. "I do not plan to lay out the whole picture of campaign contributions that might be relevant to our discussion of a bill," Feingold said on June 16. "I encourage my colleagues to join this debate."

They generally didn't, and the bill, of course, passed. But Feingold dug his new song.

Others did too. "I think it's a very useful exercise," says Don Simon, the executive vice president of Common Cause. "This is dragging something out of the cellar that people don't want to talk about. We only talk about this problem -- sort of -- once a year when we debate campaign finance reform. But money has a role every day."

Not everyone is such a fan, of course. While good-government groups and the media eat up Feingold's purity like it was free Ben & Jerry's, many of his colleagues -- on both sides of the aisle -- find his uprightness preachy and sanctimonious, and his populist mantra annoying and naive.

"I've enjoyed watching the expressions on my colleagues' faces," Feingold said in an interview with Salon News. Shaking things up, he explains, "is what my whole career has been about."

The issue of soft money really hit home in 1996, Feingold recalled, when he and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., were fighting a proposed provision that would have restored Federal Express Corp. to the small category of companies that are subject to less stringent labor laws, making it much tougher for Fed Ex employees to unionize.

But as members of the House and Senate debated the Fed Ex provision behind closed doors that summer and fall, a tidal wave of Fed Ex cash was pouring into the Capitol.

On July 19, Fed Ex gave $50,000 to the Republican Party and $50,000 to the Democrats' Senate fund-raising arm. On Aug. 9, Fed Ex gave $2,500 to the Democrats' House committee; on Aug. 10, Fed Ex gave $7,701 to the Republicans' counterpart. On Aug. 27, Fed Ex gave $87,909 to the RNC. On Sept. 9, Fed Ex gave $100,000 to the DNC. That's almost $300,000, roughly divided 50/50 between the Democrats and the Republicans.

On Sept. 25, the Fed Ex provision was slipped into a House-Senate conference committee report on the Federal Aviation Administration re-authorization bill. It was never voted on as a separate amendment or bill.

Feingold and Kennedy started threatening a filibuster on Sept. 27. On Sept. 30, Feingold says, "Kennedy and I held up the adjournment of Congress [through the filibuster] to fight these provisions."

But on Oct. 3, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., with ample cooperation from Democratic senators, was able to muster 60 votes to shut up Feingold and Kennedy. The FAA reauthorization -- with the Fed Ex provision -- passed that same day.

Fed Ex gave $10,000 to the RNC one day later; $87,909 more on Oct. 11; $50,000 to the Republicans' Senate group on Oct. 18; $200,000 to the Democrats' Senate fund-raising group on Oct. 31; $100,000 to the RNC on Nov. 7; and $100,000 to the DNC on Nov. 15.

Within a few months, workers from UPS -- Fed Ex's larger competitor -- went on strike and, Feingold says, as a result, "Fed Ex picked up a 15 percent market share."

Fed Ex spokesman Jess Bunn defended his company's lobbying efforts. "We are among the most heavily regulated industries in America," he said. "Because of that, it is incumbent upon us to take part in the political process. We recognize that the political process is what it is, and political campaign contributions are part of the political process." Bunn adds that Fed Ex supports campaign finance reform. "Our preference would be along the lines of eliminating soft money contributions."

"It was a pretty good deal," Feingold said of the payoff for Fed Ex.

Feingold's always been something of a purist. Hill lore has it that he doesn't allow his staffers to even drink a soda at the myriad receptions hosted by various special interests. "That's not true," he corrects me when I ask him about the legendary policy. "They can drink a soda -- if they pay for it."

His latest Puritanism has its origins, he says, in the work of another progressive Wisconsinite, Republican Sen. Robert La Follette Sr., who was first elected in 1906. La Follette railed against the influence wielded by railroad, steel and oil companies, championing the cause of the common Joe.

Back then, Feingold explained on the Senate floor on June 16, "Senators' actual votes on legislation were not as well known publicly as they are today." So when La Follette toured the country informing citizens about how their senators voted on his consumer-oriented amendments, it got a lot of people's attention.

"The devastation created by La Follette last summer and in the early fall was much greater than supposed," the New York Times reported at the time. "He carried senatorial discourtesy so far that he has actually imperiled the reelection of some of the gentlemen who hazed him last winter."

The inoffensive Feingold is certainly no "Fighting Bob" La Follette. He doesn't rail against senators by name, for one.

"My style is different," Feingold says. "La Follette was very confrontational. I'm more eager to form relationships with colleagues, and form bipartisan support for these issues."

But even the relatively modest announcements Feingold has been making in his "Calling of the Bankroll" (a play on La Follette's original campaign, dubbed the "Calling of the Roll") has ruffled some feathers. On June 23, for instance, before the debate over the Patients Bill of Rights, Feingold pointed out that the managed-care industry had recently given political parties more than $3.4 million in soft money and other contributions. The pharmaceutical industry chipped in $10.6 million, the American Medical Association more than $2.4 million and the AFL-CIO close to $2 million.

"We don't comment on that issue," says an AMA spokesman. "We file the forms that we file, but that's as far as we go."

On July 14, on a key amendment on patient protections, Feingold noted that United HealthCare Corporation gave $305,000 in soft money to parties and $65,500 in PAC contributions; Blue Cross/Blue Shield's national association gave in excess of $200,000 in soft money and almost $350,000 in PAC contributions; and the American Association of Health Plans gave almost $60,000 in soft money in just the last two years.

Just like Federal Express, a Blue Cross spokesman defended his company's contributions, pointing to the law. "The association has always played by the rules, whatever the rules are," says Blue Cross/Blue Shield Association spokesman Bill Pierce. "This is part of the political process, and we have always believed in engaging in it."

So far, Feingold says, his colleagues have watched his new shtick with both indifference and bemused interest -- the latter especially when it meets their political ends. He's received three different requests from his colleagues, he says, "asking me to call the bankroll on specific bills: the Patients' Bill of Rights and two others that are coming out. They say, 'I'm being pounded by the other side, can you do a little routine on that?' And I tell them I'd be glad to."

The bottom line, Feingold says, is that soft-money contributions "drive the actual agenda of what comes up in the Senate and what comes up in the House ... You know, the motto of the Capital Times" -- the newspaper of Madison, Wisc., which also attempts to follow in La Follette's footsteps -- "is 'Give the people the truth and the freedom to discuss it, and all will go well' ... I see myself as having a job to do, to lay out the facts."

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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