Strange Bedfellow

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

How will Trent Lott kill campaign-finance reform? Let me count the ways.

Trent Lott’s snap decision to schedule an immediate debate in the Senate represents an important opening for supporters of McCain-Feingold, the main vehicle for campaign-finance reform. But do not suppose that the majority leader has developed any sympathy for a bill that would ban soft money, limit independent expenditures, and tighten disclosure requirements. Republicans have a huge stake in the current system, under which they out-raised Democrats by 50 percent in the last election cycle. Incumbents have an even bigger edge over challengers. Thus, for the boss of the incumbent Republicans, to permit the playing field to be leveled would be to go beyond good sportsmanship. It would be an act of self-immolation.

But even if Lott’s motive for offing McCain-Feingold remains as powerful as ever, carrying out the hit no longer looks so simple. Fred Thompson’s hearings have done what Lott and his henchmen Don Nickles and Mitch McConnell feared they would do–they have dramatized the general horror of the current system more than they have the particular excesses of the incumbent president. Simply dismissing reform as unnecessary–Lott’s approach as recently as a few months ago–no longer suffices. At the same time, the Republican leadership can’t be too brazen. To count on party discipline to reject McCain-Feingold outright, or to use the power of the gavel to prevent it from coming to the floor, would be to court a public backlash and a revolt within the Republican caucus. That kind of leadership can make a party leader look bad.

So a straightforward machine-gun massacre is out. Thanks to the baroque vestiges of Senate procedure, however, Lott and company still have other weapons at their disposal: the ice pick, the poisoned umbrella tip, the exploding cigar, the James Bond shark tank, the Batman buzz saw, quicksand, car bombs, a variety of slow-acting toxins, the complete works of Joyce Carol Oates, and their bare hands. (Some of these weapons are, of course, too barbaric to actually use.) Here’s the best current thinking about how Republican leaders are likely to try to snuff their victim, beginning next week.

Supporters of McCain-Feingold universally expect Lott to first try attaching one or more killer amendments. The idea here is a booby trap. You add something offensive that doesn’t alter the appearance of the bill, allowing Republicans to support it while compelling Democrats to vote against it. The most probable amendment is one that expands on the Supreme Court’s Beck decision. In 1988, the court ruled that union members have a right to demand a refund of the portion of their dues spent on politics. McCain-Feingold would “codify” Beck, by requiring unions to notify their members of this right. Nickles argues for what is known as a “hard Beck” provision, which would go further, giving union members a chance to opt out permanently. The AFL-CIO considers this non-negotiable, as do most Democrats. They argue that corporations may spend money on politics without offering a rebate to dissatisfied shareholders. If Senate Republicans tack on a Nickles amendment, Democrats might even filibuster to block McCain-Feingold, which otherwise has their unanimous support.

The advantage of a Beck-based amendment is that it would create a version of the bill friendly to Republican interests to counter what Lott can argue is a version beneficial to Democrats. But assuming that Lott does not persuade any of the bill’s four Republican supporters–John McCain, Thompson, Susan Collins, and Arlen Specter–he would need all 51 of his remaining team members to win the vote. The fate of reform will then rest with a few Republicans from strong labor states, such as Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Spencer Abraham of Michigan. If Lott loses on Beck, he may try other killer amendments, such as one that would abolish the public financing of presidential campaigns and get rid of the $3 tax checkoff that pays for it. The folks on McCain’s side think the votes on these amendments will be decisive. If they can fend off the Klingons, it will demonstrate a majority for genuine reform.

I n that event, Lott may try to undermine the bill in back-room negotiations. This would be more in the line of judicial murder. For example, his faction might agree to ban soft money–but only in exchange for deregulating hard money. McConnell would like to end all limits on direct contributions. Short of that, he would like to raise the limit on total annual contributions by any individual from $25,000 to $75,000. Because both a wealthy person and his/her spouse can give each year, this would mean that he or she could effectively contribute $300,000 in an election cycle–not unlimited money, but pretty close. Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a reform group, notes other recondite anti-reform measures that Lott might try to sneak in. He might try to undo the ban on direct corporate and labor contributions that has been in effect since 1907 or undo soft-money restrictions by leaving state committees free to dabble in federal races.

The burden of resisting these feints will fall partly on Minority Leader Tom Daschle but principally on McCain–who, as a Vietnam POW, survived torture in the Hanoi Hilton. If McCain holds out for a strong bill, Lott may have no alternative to an old-fashioned filibuster. Supporters of McCain-Feingold will probably need not just 50 votes for victory (with the tie to be broken by Al Gore) but 60 votes to invoke “cloture” and break a filibuster. McConnell heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and thinks Republicans can remain in control of the Senate for the next 20 years if they can defeat McCain-Feingold. He has said he is ready to use any means necessary. A truly diabolical man, he could read Art Buchwald columns on the floor of the Senate until even McCain cries uncle.

This kind of public execution of reform would look terrible, so Lott might try to mitigate a filibuster by offering as a substitute his own phony reform bill. Think of this as a “pod” or replicate version of campaign-finance reform. It might contain a grab bag of changes tied to revelations about the Clinton campaign of 1996, such as banning contributions from domestic subsidiaries of foreign businesses, phone solicitations from the White House, and paying guests in the Lincoln Bedroom. But surely this wouldn’t satisfy anyone. And one downside would be the implicit admission that most of what Democrats did in the last election wasn’t illegal.

If McCain-Feingold gains enough shame-leverage to pass the Senate, expect an attempt to kill it in the House. Speaker Newt Gingrich, who argues that we need more money in campaigns, not less, expressed his die-hard opposition to McCain-Feingold last week. He could use the complex House rules to smother the bill. If some sort of momentum carries the idea through both chambers, differences between the two versions would still need to be ironed out in conference committee. This would provide additional opportunities for sabotage. Conferees appointed by Lott and Gingrich could insert a poison pill that would 1) move Democrats to vote against final passage or 2) be bait for a presidential veto. They could also implant a constitutional depth charge, by burying something that violates the First Amendment and would be likely to result in the whole mess being thrown out by the Supreme Court.

And that’s just the stuff they’ve thought of so far. McCain-Feingold may be a bill with nine lives. But Trent Lott knows that there are many, many ways for it to die.