Congress: More Rascality

Congress has done the least they could get away with in campaign finance reform with the House passage of the Shays-Meehan bill. The least we could do now is to let our recalcitrant senators know that cleaning up campaigns is a priority this year.

The campaign finance reform bill was passed August 6 despite the machinations of the GOP leadership in the House. After working behind the scenes for months just to get the bill to the House floor for a vote, the bill's sponsors, Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass., had to weave their way through a week's worth of amendments and substitutes designed to kill or neuter the bill. However it survived fairly intact to close the "soft money" loophole, which allows corporations, labor unions, individuals or "issue advocacy" groups to contribute unlimited amounts to political parties. The bill also would rein in the last-minute attack ads that advocacy groups use to savage candidates. Candidates also would face more finance disclosure regulations.

Republicans have made considerable hay over their investigations into Democratic fundraising excesses of the past few years, but the GOP has spent the better part of the past decade killing campaign finance reform legislation. Richard Winger of Ballot Access News notes that Congress in 1991 passed a reform bill similar to Shays-Meehan, but President George Bush vetoed it.

This year Shays-Meehan likely won't get past the Senate, so reform will die once again. The Senate version has 52 supporters, but that is still eight short of breaking a GOP filibuster. Common Cause has targeted two senators who are in tight election contests: Sens. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo. Other potential swing votes include Indiana Republican Sens. Dan Coats and Richard Lugar; Sen. Christopher S. Bond, R-Mo.; and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. But even if those senators fold, the numbers still do not add up to passage.

The pressure of the good-government types doesn't faze Sen. Mitch McConnell, who has led the Senate opposition to campaign reform for the past decade. As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee this year he has special reason to protect the GOP's natural fundraising advantage. He flatly predicted in February that Republicans would not suffer for blocking the reforms. "No one in the history of American politics has ever won or lost a campaign on the subject of campaign finance reform," he said, confidence tinged in contempt for the do-gooders.

The Shays-Meehan reforms would have merely put a patch on the current corrupt system, but the McConnellites in the Senate wouldn't even stand for that. OK, when the last rites are intoned over Shays-Meehan, advocates of democracy should marshal their forces behind a "Clean Money" public financing bill similar to those passed in Maine and Vermont. Under those bills, candidates at the state level who agree to take no private money and abide by strict spending limits would receive public funding for their campaigns. Similar bills at the federal level were introduced in the House and Senate in 1997 but went nowhere.

When Congress goes back into session in September, the Senate is expected to vote on an omnibus free trade bill that would expand trade with Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean Basin and revive fast-track review of trade accords. At least by packing several notorious free-trade measures into one grab-bag the Republicans gave populist opponents a bigger target to shoot at. Fire away!

The proposal to expand trade to Africa had drawn support of many black members of Congress, at least until American textile workers -- many of whom are minorities -- pointed out that the accord would hurt domestic textile production. Then the Senate Finance Committee linked fast track to the bill. Among other things, this provision would allow the secret Multinational Agreement on Investments -- the Bill of Rights for multinational corporations -- to be considered on a fast track with little public review and debate. The bill also would prevent environmental and labor conditions from being included in trade accords. That caused many Congressional Black Caucus members to declare their opposition. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., chair of the caucus, called the reworked bill "a 'Christmas tree' for multinational corporations."

Lori Wallach, a trade lawyer with Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, said the Senate Finance Committee mark-up adds so many controversial elements that it sets up Senate filibusters, legions of floor amendments and heated House opposition if it gets that far.

While the Republicans may have overreached, perhaps in an effort to embarrass President Clinton before the election, Wallach noted that the largest U.S.-based multinational corporations are supporting it, and since "this package would deliver on most of the trade measures that have failed over the past two years in Congress, the potential support for it in the business world and among congressional supporters of this agenda cannot be underestimated."

The House in September also will be voting on a $18.5 billion increase for the International Monetary Fund, which already has been approved by the Senate. Ruth Caplan of the Alliance for Democracy reports the quota increase would impose many of the provisions of the Multinational Agreement on Investments on countries that seek aid from IMF, "because the IMF wants the same kind of power to remove all local regulation over investments coming in and out of countries and communities that the [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries are negotiating in the MAI."

The IMF appropriation that came of the House Appropriations' Foreign Operations Subcommittee set as conditions that countries receiving aid must liberalize restrictions on trade in goods and services and on investment. The countries also must eliminate low-interest loans or subsidies to favored industries, enterprises, parties, or institutions, including small businesses or poor women.

Meanwhile, Caplan advised activists to keep organizing against the MAI by encouraging their local city councils to pass resolutions opposing it. The National Association of Counties in July adopted a strong resolution which states in part, "the National Association of counties urges the Administration not to agree to any provisions in the MAI draft text or similar provision of any international agreement that would preempt local governments ability to regulate activities within its jurisdiction."

That didn't stop the House from narrowly voting August 5 to protect the World Trade Organization's authority. A 228-200 vote rejected an amendment that would have barred the federal government from legally challenging state or local sanctions that were found by the WTO to violate international trade accords.

Despite the rejection, the amendment brought together an unusual coalition of left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans, while the Clinton administration ended up working with the Republican leadership and more than 600 of America's largest corporations, organized in the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), to scuttle the amendment which would have allowed state or local governments to impose unilateral sanctions such as those against Burma or Cuba.

So urge campaign finance reform, call for no free trade until fair trade is assured and reject any increase for IMF unless it protects workers and the environment as well as bankers and multinational corporations. Call your congressional representatives and senators at 202-224-3121 or write c/o the House or Senate, Washington, D.C. 20515.

-- Jim Cullen

For more information contact Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, 215 Pennsylvania Ave SE, Washington, DC 20003; phone 202-546-4996; fax 202-547-7392; web site www.tradewatch.org.

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