Campaign reform chic

What made 33 Republicans suddenly change their minds about a bill that cracks down on stealth PACs?

By Jake Tapper

Published June 30, 2000 6:49PM (EDT)

The Senate magnanimously embraced campaign reform Thursday, passing a campaign finance measure that will require the disclosure of donors to the stealth, often bogus, political groups that seized upon section 527 in the tax code to wage anonymous campaigns. The bill passed 92-6.

But wait, you say. Didn't that exact same bill pass the Senate only weeks ago by a relatively narrow vote of 57-42? What the hell is this 92-6 bullion? Why did these three-dozen-odd senators suddenly find God?"

They found God, says Meredith McGehee, senior vice president of the public interest group Common Cause, because, "I think everybody realized they couldn't defend the indefensible." During a political lull, the "527" disclosure bill offered by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.; and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., managed to strike a nerve -- at least with newspaper editorial writers -- by promising to crack down on the anonymously funded "sham" issue ads that supposedly don't advocate one candidate over another. "Republicans for Clean Air," formed during the GOP primaries to help pollution-friendly Gov. George W. Bush, was perhaps the most famous example.

"The more press it got and the more attention it got, the more egregious it appeared," McGehee says. "I mean, who wanted to stand up and support secret slush funds?"

"It's real simple," says Feingold. "The handwriting is on the wall. A number of Republican senators have gotten in the habit of backing Mitch McConnell" -- the Republican senator from Kentucky and leading opponent of campaign finance reform -- "every time on this issue, and now they're finding out that that's a really bad idea."

Six did vote against the 527 disclosure bill, though if you're gauging hypocrisy, you should give McConnell -- who opposed it, naturally -- props. (The other five were Sen. Paul Coverdale, R-Ga.; Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.; Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla.; Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla.; and Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla.)

You might want to hold off on sending McConnell a basket of muffins, however, since his pre-vote comments are an embodiment of Washington hypocrisy. Calling the bill "arguably unconstitutional," McConnell still gave his fellow Republican senators a get out of jail free card: "I'd say to my Republican colleagues, particularly those up for reelection, that [opposing the bill is] pretty hard to explain," McConnell said. "I do not think this is a spear worth falling on four months before an election."

So is McGehee happy that there are now 92 campaign finance reformers in the Senate? She laughs. "Are there a lot of phonies in this vote? Absolutely," McGehee says. "But I'll take them, because winning is important. As a lobbyist, I can't care all that much about motivations, 'cause I want the votes."

Seizing on a potent election year issue, every Democratic senator voted for the bill last time, on June 8, and did again this time. But Salon decided to call the 33 GOP senators who voted against the amendment on June 8 but for it on Thursday to hear, in their own words, just what changed their minds in the past 20 days.

Some offices didn't return our calls (Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah; Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo.; Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky.; Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho; Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wy.; Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill.; Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash.; Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz.; Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.; Sen. Bill Roth, R-Del.; Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H.; Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska; Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C.; Sen. John Warner, R-Va.).

Others said they'd get back to us, but never did (Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.; Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo.; Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.; Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.; Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas).

But others did, and their reactions are below. And as a possible gauge to the senators' sincerity, we include how the senator voted on campaign finance reform issues in the past.

Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo. (voted against the Common Cause position on the past three votes): "The reason he voted against it on June 8 -- and he gave a speech on the floor, and he told Sen. McCain about this at the time -- was that he did not want it attached to the defense authorization bill at the time," says Sean Conway, Allard's press secretary.

This was the most common excuse by senators who voted against the bill the first time around. At the time, McCain called the excuse "a red herring." Conway says, "Well, Sen. McCain's free to think what he wants. But it came up this time and it wasn't attached to the [Department of Defense] authorization, and he voted for it, right?"

Feingold calls the "defense authorization" argument "a fig leaf," a way the GOP leadership "protected these folks" during the June 8 vote. "It wasn't a completely inaccurate argument," Feingold allows, "though it could have been fixed very easily" if the leadership had wanted to.

Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., one of the House campaign finance reform leaders, says that Thursday's vote proves that "when you have a straight up-or-down vote on campaign finance reform," instead of procedural motions and such that cloud the issue, "it would pass by more than 60 votes. And once you got 60 votes, you could end up with 75.

"This vote was not as close the first time," Shays continues, referring to the 57-42 vote from three weeks ago. "Because I think members of the Senate thought they could avoid a plain simple vote on reform. But with this vote, they couldn't say they 'didn't want to attach it to the defense bill,' they couldn't give any other reason. It was just an up or down vote on reform."

Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo. (voted against Common Cause position on the past four votes): Ashcroft voted against the June 8 amendment because the amendment "did not originate from the House," says spokesman Taylor Gross. "And according to Article I of the Constitution any piece of legislation that affects revenue has to originate in the House ... So it's more of a procedural deal than a political deal."

Common Cause's McGehee calls that argument "a dodge."

"There are test votes in life and the technicalities of that one shouldn't have mattered for anyone who cares about reform," she says.

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho (voted against Common Cause position on the past two votes): "It was a different amendment," says spokeswoman Susan Wheeler. "It's my understanding that the amendment they voted on [Thursday] expanded the requirements for business and labor, and it was less partisan than the other bill. What they voted on June 8 was more narrow in focus."

"That's not the case," says Common Cause press secretary Jeff Cronin. "It's almost identical; it's virtually the same legislation."

Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn. (voted against Common Cause position the past four votes): "He had voted against it for procedural reasons," says spokesperson Margaret Camp. When told McCain calls that argument a "red herring" and McGehee calls it "a dodge," Camp says, "Clearly it wasn't, since he supported it when it was free-standing."

Sen. Rod Grams, R-Minn. (voted against Common Cause position on the past four votes): "When it was first considered, it was attached to the DOD bill, and it had the potential to threaten the passage of that bill," says spokesman Steve Behm. "Sen. Grams always supported that bill, and is actually a cosponsor of a bill from Sen. Gordon Smith on this issue that's actually broader."

Any comment on the "red herring" or "dodge" charges? "Uh, no," Behm says.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa (voted against Common Cause position on the past four votes): Grassley first opposed it "because of the procedural vote and the jurisdiction with a tax item needing to originate in the House," says spokeswoman Jill Kozeny. "Sen. Grassley agreed with Sen. [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan [D-N.Y.] and others ... that under the practices and precedent of the Senate in interpreting the Constitution, the proposal last week was a blue-slip problem" -- meaning it could have been recalled by the House for not being drafted properly.

"Sen. Grassley supports broad disclosure reform that includes the most conservative and the most liberal organizations that fund issue ads," Kozeny goes on to say. "But it's clear today that the House measure is the best that can be done this year during the limited time left in the session. With the jurisdictional matter resolved, he wanted to pass some reform rather than no reform."

Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark. (voted against the Common Cause position two out of the past three votes): "As a member of the Armed Services Committee, he did not think it should have been voted as an amendment to the defense authorization bill; there have been a lot of non-germane amendments offered to the bill," says communications director Sue Hensley. "Once it was offered as a free-standing bill, he voted for it."

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. (voted against Common Cause position on the past four votes): "On June 8, it was a killer to DOD," says spokesman John Czwartacki. "Tacking this 527 (amendment) on there would have killed the DOD bill." Czwartacki shrugs off McCain and McGehee's slams on that argument. "It's the truth," he says.

Even though the 527 amendment didn't really affect revenue, "it was named after an item in the revenue code," so it needed to originate in the House. "I know that Sen. McCain and other senators didn't agree with that, and they described it as a 'red herring,' but I think they were just interested in having a vote and having a debate that day. Others, like the leader, are responsible for legislation getting passed." Lott promised that the issue would get its hearing -- "without distractions like killing the DOD bill" -- and it did today, he says.

Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska (voted against Common Cause position on the past four votes): "He voted against it since it originated in the Senate and wouldn't pass constitutional muster," says press secretary Chuck Kleeschulte.

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn. (voted against Common Cause position on the past four votes): Santorum spoke rather vociferously against the 527 disclosure amendment on June 8.

"I strongly oppose it," he said on the Senate floor. The freshman cited not only the procedural issues but also trotted out a GOP argument that the bill "does not cover labor unions ... the Sierra Club ... (or) the trial lawyers, all of which are the major funders of the other side of the aisle ... I will support an amendment that is broad. I will support an amendment that provides disclosure for everybody who engages in political campaigns but not pick my friends over my enemies."

"It was complete baloney when he said that," Feingold says. "He completely -- inaccurately -- said that it wouldn't affect groups like the Sierra Club, when I had just a moment before pointed out that it would affect the Sierra Club. Sen. Santorum's facts were completely wrong. The bill is an even-handed provision."

Wrong or not, Santorum sneered at McCain's jab that today's political process breeds cynicism. "You want to talk about breeding cynicism?" Santorum asked June 8. "Bring up an amendment that calls for disclosure which excludes the groups that favor you and punishes the ones that don't. That brings cynicism to the process."

Speaking of bringing cynicism to the process, whassup with Santorum's naked flip-flop?

"He said he was for broader disclosure," says communications director Melissa Stabatine. "He still supports the goal, he thought it should be broader, though, so he's a cosponsor of the broader [Sen. Gordon] Smith bill. Part of his voting against it that day was also because of the defense authorization dynamic."

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. (voted against Common Cause position on three out of the last three votes) - "He voted against it because it was going to be attached to the defense bill so he believed that it would have held up the nation's defense," says spokesperson Rebecca Pugh. "He's always generally been a supporter of disclosure. And this was the first logical step in achieving that goal."

Sen. Dick Shelby, R-Ala. (voted against Common Cause position on the past four votes): Flip-flopping's not exactly new for Shelby, who went so far as to change parties after the Republicans took control of the Senate.

Shelby's press secretary, Andrea Andrews, e-mailed Salon a statement from Shelby saying that "the bill, while not as comprehensive as I would have liked, will increase the amount of information disclosed to the public concerning political campaigns [and] I believe that increased transparency is one of the best ways to ensure integrity and accountability in our political process. However, the bill's failure to include the political activities of labor unions and other organizations denies the American people their right to full and fair disclosure and must be addressed by the Congress."

Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H. (voted against the Common Cause position on four out of the last four votes) -- Smith, too, at times seems a bit confused on where he stands on some issues, having jumped from the Republican Party to become an independent last year, only to jump back into the arms of the GOP when it became apparent that a committee chairmanship would be open to him if he did so. Smith's press secretary did not return calls for comment.

Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo. (voted against the Common Cause position on the past four votes): "The main reason was that when it came up first it was part of the DOD bill, and he had said that he would vote for it separately," says spokesman Dan Kunsman.

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio (voted against Common Cause position on the past two votes): "He said at the time publicly, and to Sen. McCain, that the only reason he was voting against it was because it was on the defense authorization bill," says spokesman Mike Dawson, who notes that Voinovich had worked hard for a provision on the defense bill and didn't want to risk it getting killed.

Jake Tapper

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

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