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NOW'S THE TIME FOR CAMPAIGN REFORM\ SENATE REPUBLICANS SHOULD LET CAMPAIGN REFORM COME TO A VOTE.
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NOW'S THE TIME FOR CAMPAIGN REFORM\ SENATE REPUBLICANS SHOULD LET CAMPAIGN REFORM COME TO A VOTE.

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The time is right for campaign finance reform. The public wants it. A majority in Congress supports it. The U.S. House passed a significant package of reforms, and the Senate likely would do the same.

But the Senate's Republican leaders, unconscionably, will not even let the matter come to a vote.Last Thursday, the Senate voted 52-48 to break the GOP's filibuster and take up a bipartisan reform bill nearly identical to the one that passed the House in August. That would have been enough to pass the measure, sponsored by Republican John McCain of Arizona and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. But it was eight votes shy of the 60 needed to bring the bill to a vote.

For that failure, North Carolinians can thank both their senators in part. Republicans Lauch Faircloth and Jesse Helms sided with those hostile to reform.

Neither McCain-Feingold nor its sister bill in the House, Shays-Meehan, is the complete answer to campaign finance reform. But they are a significant step. They would ban ``soft money' - the unregulated donations to political parties that fueled so many of the corrupting excesses of the 1996 campaigns. They also would crack down on ads by special interest groups.

Supporters of reform vow to try again before the Senate adjourns next month, so Faircloth and Helms will get another chance to do the right thing.

Faircloth, in particular, has much to gain by supporting McCain-Feingold. He's locked in a tough re-election fight with Democrat John Edwards, and it's clear many voters favor reform. A recent poll found that 59 percent of North Carolinians - and 64 percent of Republicans - favor McCain-Feingold.

Senate leaders contend the bill would violate the right to free speech by banning soft money donations, but it's not so. Money buys access to the media, but money is not speech. In fact, because it's unregulated, soft money allows the rich to wield disproportionate influence over the political process, drowning out the voices of other voters.

Soft money also allows special interests to circumvent legal limits on contributions to individual candidates - by funneling the money in large chunks to political parties. That makes it difficult, if not impossible, for voters to know who is bankrolling campaigns.

A spokesman for Faircloth, Peter Hans, offered other reasons for the senator's opposition. Faircloth wants to forbid unions from using membership dues for political purposes without members' permission, Hans said. McCain-Feingold does not do that.

Hans also said that the groups pressuring Faircloth to support McCain-Feingold favor financing campaigns with public money - something the senator opposes.

None of those objections is reason to oppose McCain-Feingold. Instead of looking for excuses to reject the bill, Faircloth and other Republicans should vote to curb the influence of big money on politics.

CONTACT Write Sen. Lauch Faircloth at 317 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington DC 20510 or call 202-224-3154. Write Sen. Jesse Helms at 403 Dirksen Building, Washington DC 20510 or call 202-224-6342.

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