Hogs Still in the Creek

As this is written, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill is lurching forward, amended in attempts to reduce the impact of billionaire candidates, to force TV stations to sell prime-time ads to candidates at discount rates and to curtail the ability of political groups to run unaccountable attack ads within a month or two of elections. The Senate laudably defeated Chuck Hagel's "poison pill" amendments, backed by George W. Bush, that would triple the amount of money wealthy contributors could give to politicians and "limit" a couple's hard and soft money contributions to $540,000 per year. The Senate earlier had rejected a "poison pill" attempt to handcuff organized labor with "paycheck protection" on political activity paid with union dues.

The most disappointing defeat was March 21, when the Senate voted down, 64-36, Paul Wellstone's attempt to allow states to provide public funding for candidates who agree to limit their fundraising and spending in congressional races, as 12 states now do in races for state offices. Minnesota tried to set up such a public financing system for federal candidates nine years ago, but the 8th Circuit US Court of Appeals ruled that the Federal Election Campaign Act prohibited the state legislature's offer of public assistance to congressional candidates in Minnesota. Wellstone tried to legalize such aid. "Let the states be the laboratory of reform," Wellstone said, paraphrasing former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. "This is a reform issue and a states' rights issue."

But this is another case where Republicans drew the line on states' rights when it suited their self-interests. The entire GOP caucus opposed any opening for public financing of potential rivals. Fourteen Democrats joined the Republicans to bury the Wellstone amendment, although in fairness many of the D's objected that the amendment would jeopardize the main bill. They're probably right, but opening the federal elections to public funding was worth the risk.

After all, McCain-Feingold is at best a modest attempt to rein in the role of money in the political process. As critics charge, politicians and lobbyists will find a way to circumvent the restrictions placed on soft money, although it is important that Congress show that it can act in a modest way to reduce the influence of money on politics, and establish that corporate contributors don't call all the shots. And a bill that defies the National Association of Broadcasters can't be a bad thing, even though the Senate is still a long way from taxing broadcasters for commercial use of the public airwaves, as it ought to.

But as Wellstone said, "If Americans are ever to get expanded, affordable health care coverage, a prescription drug benefit under Medicare, protection of clean air and safe drinking water, for instance, we must get real campaign finance reform first." Or, as the old saying goes, you have to get the hogs out of the creek before the water will clear up.

Wellstone came back on March 26 with another amendment to expand a provision in the bill that bans certain non-profit groups from running TV ads within 30 days of a primary election, and 60 days of a general election. Republican opponents of campaign reform cynically supported Wellstone's amendment, which passed 51-46. They know that the Supreme Court in 1986 ruled that non-profit advocacy groups have a right to electioneer, making this their best hope to overturn the law on appeal. We happen to agree that the First Amendment grants advocacy groups the right to air political ads. That's another reason campaign finance reform should provide for a voluntary system of public funding, of the sort which Wellstone proposed, which would allow honest candidates to run for office with public money without forcing them to seek corporate sponsors.

Republican obstructionists are in the creek, mounting a last-ditch effort to scuttle even the modest McCain-Feingold reforms. The critical vote now is over whether the provisions of the bill are non-severable, meaning that if the "Rehnquist 5" finds any of the provisions unconstitutional, it can throw out the whole bill. Senators who vote for non-severability are voting to keep the corrupt system as it is. [The Senate voted down non-severability 57-43 on March 29, after this went to press.] Even modest reform is better than none. But if this bill gets out of the Senate, it is only the beginning (particularly since GOP Whip Tom "The Hammer" DeLay has promised to kill it in the House).

With every new outrage from the Republican Congress and White House, some smart aleck Democrats have taken to taunting progressives who voted Green in the last election to "get Ralph Nader to help you." Apparently it is too much to hope for help from the Democrats, who with the 50/50 split in the Senate could stop action in that chamber but so far they have shown little inclination toward doing so. The bankruptcy deform bill roared out of the Senate March 16 with only 15 Democrats in opposition. Final passage awaits the reconciliation of modest differences between the House and Senate versions.

Salon.com's Walter Shapiro quotes the respected former US bankruptcy Judge Francis Conrad, who said of the "bankruptcy reform" currently being peddled in Congress, "People will be forced to pay the credit card companies -- instead of buying food, instead of paying alimony. ... You will create poverty."

The National Women's Law Center called the bill (S. 420) a harsh message to working families trying to regain their economic stability and meet their children's needs. The bill increases competition for resources between parents and children owed child support and commercial creditors like credit card companies during and after bankruptcy.

The bill would give credit card companies and car lenders a priority on bankrupt consumers' debts. It would bar many people from getting a fresh start from credit card debts under Chapter 7 by forcing them to file instead under Chapter 13, and it would put expensive legal and paperwork burdens on families who already are strapped for cash. Nader wrote congressional leaders that the change was "tantamount to an extended sentence to a 'debtors prison' without parole for many families."

The deform also could sweep under many small businesses, as it would give faltering businesses less time to settle their debts and reorganize. The changes, intended to prevent companies from languishing in bankruptcy court, could force more small companies out of business, even supporters of the bill told the New York Times. The result may be a loss of jobs at a time when the employment outlook is already weakening.

The Consumer Federation of America noted that by improving a credit card company's chances of recovering from bankrupt families, the bill if anything will increase the number of badly overextended consumers and will result in more bankruptcies.

MBNA America, the nation's largest single credit-card issuer, was also the largest single supporter of the George W. Bush campaign, with $240,700 in hard-money donations. Its CEO, George Cawley, was one of those Bush "pioneers" who personally raised at least $100,000 for him early in the campaign. Some have suggested boycotting MBNA credit cards as a protest, but the rest are just as bad: Credit card companies and banks together gave $37.7 million to candidates and parties in 2000, according to Public Campaign, the campaign-finance-reform lobby. And senators and Congress members have been only too happy to comply with the financial industry's demands.

If the Bush II recession takes hold, personal bankruptcies will start rising in the fall, just about the time the new rules take effect. If you have substantial debts, particularly credit card or other unsecured debts, you should seriously consider whether to declare bankruptcy now. For information on bankruptcy, see a lawyer. Or, if you want to try it without a lawyer, check the Nolo Press at www.nolo.com.

Meanwhile, as much as we enjoy a political brawl, it would be good to see a truce between the progressive Democrats and the Greens that would lead to cooperation in areas where they can find common cause. There is plenty in the Republican agenda for progressives to oppose. -- JMC

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