Pence-Wynn Bill Is No Vehicle for Reform

Posted June 13, 2005 at 3:38pm

When it comes to good government and standing up for ordinary citizens, Democrats are the natural party of reform. One area that continues to warrant our attention and leadership is campaign finance reform. With two conflicting pieces of legislation pending in Congress this session, Democrats must unite around strengthening existing laws — not reopening the floodgates. [IMGCAP(1)]

I know it’s tempting for some Members of Congress to embrace the false premise that the so-called 527 Fairness Act of 2005 would narrow the financial advantage Republicans enjoy in electoral politics. But the bill, which has hardly anything to do with Section 527 of the tax code, was rushed out of committee last week and is on a fast track toward passage in the House.

Although the two sponsors — Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and my friend Rep. Al Wynn (D-Md.) — believe this bill will put the two major parties back in the driver’s seat on campaign spending, it would, in reality, wreak havoc on the Democrats and leave the party even further behind.

Before Congress catapults campaign finance laws back to the pre-Watergate days, I would hope that Members talk to their constituents back home and get some real input for a change.

This legislation would eliminate the aggregate caps on the contributions that individuals can make to the parties and candidates. And at least a few well-meaning Democrats are considering supporting this legislation.

Here’s how it would work in the real world. It would allow federal officeholders (including Members of Congress) to solicit contributors to give more than a million dollars to a party, and more than $2 million to federal candidates. The Pence-Wynn bill would also relax restrictions designed to keep corporations from pressuring rank-and-file workers to make contributions to corporate political action committees, and ease the way for trade associations to pressure the employees of their members to solicit PAC contributions.

If this bill is allowed to pass, can you imagine the pressure some workers would be under to pony up their hard-earned wages to help support someone who, for instance, opposes raising the minimum wage? The Democratic Party has no business getting behind any of this bill, which would only contribute to the sense of powerlessness most citizens feel about their lives. No reasonable campaign finance system should allow one person to give millions of dollars directly to the parties and candidates.

Democrats are supposed to be the party of families who work hard and play by the rules. Out of that core conviction, we Democrats have historically led the way on reasonable campaign finance reform measures designed to prevent political corruption.

We’ve done it because when decisions are made on their merits, real Americans benefit, rather than rich special interests. And historically, we’ve benefited politically by being the one party that is truly interested in clean, transparent, honest government by the people, for the people — not by and for whichever industry lobbyist ponies up the biggest checks.

Most recently, those values led us to provide the votes for the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. Because of our overwhelming support, and that of a few brave Republicans such as Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.), we passed the soft-money ban. It was a major step toward rebuilding public faith in our politics. And as an additional result, the parties got down to work cultivating their bases, adding millions of new citizens to the voter rolls and many new contributors to their donor lists.

Confounding predictions, both parties thrived, shattering all records and raising more hard money in the 2004 cycle than they had ever raised in hard and soft money combined. This was good for democracy. But I’m afraid that for a few pieces of silver, we’re going to let the Republicans have a lot of gold — and lose our status as the party of reform in the process. We just cannot have it both ways.

In the last presidential cycle, 527 groups such as the Media Fund and Americans Coming Together led the way in raising more than $400 million to speak out against the negative impact of the Bush administration policies. (In the interest of full disclosure, I did some work for ACT, which I do not regret.) Once the Federal Election Commission decided it wouldn’t regulate the groups, Republican operatives got into the fray, outraising Democrats 3-to-1 in the final months of the election.

I recognize that for the party out of power, giving up a dime is like giving up an arm. But we need to go back to our values, and we need to think long and hard about which side of this fight we want to be on.

And as a political matter, it’s far from clear that unlimited, unregulated soft-money fundraising by 527s is advantageous. Next time around, the most likely outcome is that the party in power at all levels of government will put the arm on corporations — who largely sat out 2004 — and outraise us just like they did under the old system. This worries me more than anything else at the moment.

I hope my friends on both sides of the partisan divide will stand united against the Pence-Wynn bill and give some serious thought to whether we’re on the right side on the fight over the future of campaign finance reform. H.R. 1316 is not a vehicle for reform.

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.