GOP Senators Reject Curbs on Spending for Elections
Ending a weeklong battle that saw one senator forcibly carried into the Senate, Republicans on Friday virtually killed a Democratic-sponsored bill that would have limited spending in congressional races. Angry Democrats vowed to make the vote an issue in the fall elections.
Debate over the bill underlined a deep, and for now irreconcilable, difference between the two parties on the central issue in the campaign finance debate: whether the flow of money into elections has gotten too big and needs to be controlled.
“We’re all becoming more and more beholden to the moneyed interests,” Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said, arguing in favor of spending limits. “We’re a bunch of bagmen running all across the country looking for money.”
Republicans, by contrast, insist that spending limits are unnecessary and would protect only incumbents, thereby entrenching the Democrats’ current control over the House and Senate. Despite several weeks of negotiations, the Republicans have firmly rejected any plan to curb spending and, after the vote, again dismissed any talk of a compromise.
Although Byrd hinted that later in the session he may once again try to bring up the bill, senators from both parties agreed that spending limits are all but dead for the year.
And Republicans cautioned against any attempt to revive the matter. “We have killed this thing now eight times,” said Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), the deputy Republican leader. “When you replace legislation with obsession, that’s a mistake.”
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the chief GOP negotiator on campaign finance, said Republicans “will not agree” to limitations. “We didn’t do it today. We won’t do it tomorrow. We won’t do it ever.”
Rather than backing limits on spending, the Republicans have argued in favor of stricter rules on disclosing contributions. “Any reform anyone desires could be accomplished” through disclosure without spending limits, Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) argued.
A majority of the Senate supported the legislation in Friday’s vote, but the 53-41 tally fell short of the 60 votes needed to end debate and bring the bill to a final vote.
Friday was the eighth time that the bill’s supporters have tried unsuccessfully to cut off the debate. As in the past, the vote was almost entirely along party lines.
Sometimes Bitter Debate
Three Republicans--John H. Chafee of Rhode Island, Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas and Robert T. Stafford of Vermont--broke ranks and voted with the Democrats. Alabama’s two Democratic senators, Howell Heflin and Richard C. Shelby, voted with the Republicans.
The sometimes bitter debate on the bill, which had gone long into the night most of the week, was highlighted in the wee hours of Tuesday morning when the Senate sergeant-at-arms, acting under orders of senators already in attendance, “arrested” Packwood and carried him into the Senate chamber to force him to attend a roll call.
Ironically, the only time both parties agreed to suspend the debate was Wednesday night, when a recess was called so that senators from both parties could attend major fund-raising events.
During the last Senate elections, in 1986, the average candidate spent roughly $3 million. This year, both parties estimate that spending will average $4 million. In large states like California, the amounts are much greater.
A Spending Ceiling
The proposed bill would have set a spending ceiling for each state, ranging from $950,000 to $5.5 million, depending on a state’s population. Candidates would have been entitled to receive taxpayer funds if their opponents exceeded the ceiling.
In addition, candidates would have been barred from taking more than 20% of their money from political action committees. Currently, PAC contributions finance more than half of many senators’ campaigns.
Republicans have consistently said those limits would put them at a double disadvantage. They argue that challengers need to outspend incumbents to win and that the proposed bill would curb PAC spending but not adequately limit the “in-kind” contributions of work and services many Democrats receive from labor unions.