Sunday, April 01, 2001

Reform debate shows
political power of money

Senate vote would change campaign financing

By Derrick DePledge
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — To Richard T. Farmer, the chairman of Cintas Corp., who gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican causes, money is speech.

        For Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, who raised more than $1 million for his re-election last year, about half from political action committees, money is power.

        To John Cranley, Mr. Chabot's opponent, who collected more than $450,000 in his first campaign for office, money is essential.

  Only two of the Tristate's six senators likely will vote for a campaign-finance reform bill in the Senate on Monday.
  Aides to Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said both senators expect to vote no because of concerns the legislation could infringe on free-speech rights.
  Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has led the opposition to the reform bill on the Senate floor, and Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., will also likely vote no on the proposal.
  Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., will vote for the bill.
  McConnell fights reform to finish
        The relationship among campaign donors, incumbents and challengers figures to undergo the most dramatic change in 27 years when the Senate votes on Monday to adopt campaign finance reform.

        During the past two weeks, the role of money in politics has probably never been so obvious. But the debate, striking for its honesty, has also demonstrated that money can be more of a nuisance than a liberator.

        Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., was explicit about his disdain for the linkage among donor, candidate, campaign and - in much of the public's mind - policy.

        “The irony is, this place, in terms of personal rectitude is probably squeakier than any

        Congress in the last 200 years because of all the disclosure rules,” he said, articulating the view of many senators.

        Most people involved in politics believe campaign finance practices are flawed. Politicians complain they spend too much time raising money. Wealthy donors tire of being constantly approached for contributions. Activists worry they may be excluded from the legislative process if they don't give enough money during campaigns.

        The two major political parties raised $1.2 billion during the 2000 election cycle, a 37 percent increase over the last presidential election cycle in 1996. Candidates for Congress raised $858 million, a 39 percent increase over 1998. State and local political parties and interest groups like the Sierra Club and the National Rifle Association raised and spent millions more to influence elections.

        During the 2000 election cycle, the political parties aggressively solicited “soft money” - unlimited donations from individuals, corporations and labor unions for party-building activities. Democrats raised $243 million in soft money during the cycle, up from $122 million in 1996, while Republicans raised $244 million, up from $141 million four years ago.

        The campaign-finance bill the Senate will consider on Monday would ban soft money and prevent corporations, labor unions and interest groups from advertising for or against a candidate 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election.

        Individual contribution limits to candidates and political parties would be increased - to a maximum of $75,000 during an election cycle - and television stations would again be urged to offer candidates lower advertising rates. Candidates facing wealthy, self-financed opponents would be able to accept donations beyond the federal limits.

        A soft-money ban would mostly affect political parties, which may have to divert some of the money now spent directly on candidates to broader policy or get-out-the-vote efforts. Candidates typically raise most of their money from individual donors, political action committees and personal loans to their campaigns. The proposed increase in direct contribution limits would help candidates get more from their fund-raising base, since only a small number of Americans give money to political campaigns.

Across the board

        Mr. Farmer, one of the nation's top soft-money contributors, said he believes in some limits on donations but only if the restrictions apply equally to business, labor and other interest groups.

        “I would like to see this system changed,” said the chairman of the Mason-based uniform supply company. “I think it's getting out of line.”

        According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit research group that follows campaign finance, Mr. Farmer and his wife, Joyce, contributed about $720,000 in direct and soft-money contributions to Republicans during the last election cycle.

        Like many political donors, Mr. Farmer said he gives money to candidates and parties that reflect his political beliefs and expects nothing personal in return.

        “All I expect of our elected officials is to give us good government,” he said.

        Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., argues that a soft-money ban would weaken the political parties and expose candidates to attacks from interest groups. He considers the restrictions on issue ads by interest groups before an election an unconstitutional violation of free speech.

Ads must be accurate

        Mr. Chabot, who survived $1 million in negative advertising by labor unions in 1996, said he also opposes ad limits.

        “The thing I was concerned about was that the (labor) ads were so distorted,” he said, recalling one that even mispronounced his name. “I think groups should have the right to run those ads, but they ought to be disclosed and they ought to be accurate.”

        Mr. Chabot said he supports a soft-money ban and an increase in individual contribution limits. He would also like to see contribution limits to political action committees drop from $5,000 to $2,000 a year. “That way, you increase the power of individuals and decrease the power of PACs,” he said.

        Incumbents like Mr. Chabot usually have much more access to political action committees than their challengers, and PAC money was the fund-raising difference between the congressman and Mr. Cranley in the west side's 1st District. Mr. Chabot raised about $487,500 from political action committees while Mr. Cranley received about $131,250.

Money equals recognition

        Mr. Cranley, a Price Hill attorney who has since been appointed to Cincinnati City Council, said he felt pressure to raise money to pay for television advertising so he could improve his name recognition.

        “It's depressing,” he said. “It's not like it's a bunch of fun to go out and ask people for money.”

        Television stations are required to give candidates the lowest advertising rates possible, but reserve the right to move political ads for better offers, so candidates often pay higher rates to reserve the most coveted times.

        The National Association of Broadcasters, a trade group, maintains that candidates already receive about a 30 percent discount and that the bill is a “slippery slope toward mandatory free time.”

        The University of Wisconsin, using data from the nation's 75 biggest media markets, including Cincinnati, estimated that political parties, candidates and interest groups spent $623 million on more than 839,200 advertisements last year.

        “It all boils down to getting access to TV,” Mr. Cranley said. “That's the only way a challenger in most races is going to do it.”

McConnell fights reform to finish
WILKINSON: 'Buying' candidates getting tougher

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