By John Byrne Barry
Why is the Sierra Club lining up alongside Sen. John McCain to fight for campaign-finance reform?
"Easy," said Deanna White, the Sierra Club's deputy political director. "Dirty money equals dirty air, dirty water and more attacks on our wildlands. Anti-environmental forces, from the timber industry to the chemical manufacturers, give a lot of money to political parties. And they expect a return on their investment."
Federal law currently limits direct contributions to a candidate from individuals or political action committees (PACs) to $1,000 and $5,000 per election, respectively. A loophole in the law allows for unrestricted contributions to political party committees, a.k.a. soft money, for "party-building activities," like voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives. These vast sums of money are supposed to only help candidates for local and state offices, but in practice, they are used in issue ads that all but directly advocate the election or defeat of federal candidates.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the energy and natural resources industries coughed up $59 million in the 2000 election season, $26 million of which was "soft money."
On Jan. 22, Sens. McCain (R-Ariz.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and 21 other senators announced the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2001, S. 27, which would ban soft-money contributions, restrict corporate and union spending on campaign ads and require stricter disclosure of donations.
"Last Congress," said White, "our fight was to get this bill to the floor of the Senate. This year our fight will be to keep it from being killed by attempts to pass bad amendments."
The turnover in the Senate in the 2000 election bodes well for passage of campaign reform. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has agreed to begin debate on the bill in late March and will not block it with a filibuster.
Two "poison pill" amendments the Club is especially concerned about are an increase in the direct contributions limit ("hard money") by individuals and PACs; and "paycheck protection," which would require unions to seek explicit permission from their members for political activities, without imposing similar restrictions on corporations and other institutions.
One example of the influence of soft money: In the last Congress, Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) attached a rider to an emergency-funding bill for Kosovo refugee assistance. It allowed a cyanide-leach open-pit gold mine in a Washington national forest, overturning an Interior Department ruling halting the mine. He wrote the bill in consultation with the mining industry, which contributed $1 million in hard and soft money to the Republican party and its candidates. The bill passed with a modified version of the rider.
White said that passage of the McCain bill is only a beginning, that the Club's long-term goals include stricter limits on individual and corporate contributions, public financing and other mechanisms that would improve participation.
"The less money that has to be raised," said White, "the more likely it is that politicians will listen to regular people, not just big-money contributors. And that means cleaner air and water and protected wildlands."
Contact your senators and urge them to support the McCain-Feingold bill (S. 27) and oppose amendments that would weaken it. Call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121.
Write a letter to the editor supporting campaign-finance reform. For more background information, contact deanna.white @sierraclub.org; or go to: www.sierraclub.org/politics/clean_elections/.
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