ANNAPOLIS – U.S. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., came to Annapolis Friday, to pump up the General Assembly about campaign finance reform efforts both nationally and in Maryland.
McCain joked frequently, but spoke frankly to a group of legislators about the influence of money on the political process.
The difference between Denise Rich “buying” a pardon for her ex-husband from then-President Clinton and elected officials accepting huge campaign donations is the difference between bribery and extortion, McCain said.
The campaign finance bill named after the two senators will be debated starting Monday, and they have made several stops across the country to garner support.
The main component of McCain-Feingold is the prohibition of unrestricted “soft money” donations, which can be given by anyone in any amount to political parties. Candidates’ campaigns may use only hard money, which is sharply limited by both amount and type of donor.
The bill has been stopped by filibusters in the past, but notable opponents like Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., say they will allow a vote this year.
The senators were joined in Annapolis by U.S. Reps. Connie Morella, R- Bethesda, and Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville. Both support a similar House bill, Shays-Meehan (for sponsors Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass.) which has passed the House twice in the past.
Morella and Gilchrest made cameo appearances with the senators at a press conference and gave brief statements before an afternoon town-hall style meeting at St. John’s College.
The senators and representatives were invited by Maryland House Majority Leader John Hurson, D-Montgomery, who used the occasion to push his own campaign finance reform: a bill to create a voluntary system of public financing for state legislative campaigns.
Under Hurson’s bill, a candidate would qualify for public funds by raising a limited amount of “seed money” in donations of $100 or less. The candidate would then be subject to spending caps of $45,000 for a House race and $90,000 for a Senate race. If an opponent uses private funds and exceeds the original cap, the publicly funded candidate would get extra money – up to twice the limit.
Although McCain and the two other Republicans are not supportive of public financing, Hurson said having the two “rock stars” there gives his bill a big boost.
“I saw a committee room full of people who have never supported campaign finance, and their heads were nodding yes,” Hurson said.
Public financing was set back yesterday when a state Senate committee voted unfavorably for a similar bill sponsored by Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s. Hurson said he is still optimistic about the chances of passage this year, and he plans to involve Republicans as much as possible.
Some prominent Republican legislators have supported Hurson’s bill as a way to diminish the power of incumbency. In Congress, GOP senators have been almost uniform in opposition to McCain-Feingold. Hurson’s bill is awaiting a vote in the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee, where 13 of the 22 members are co-sponsors. Negotiations are taking place on amendments, Hurson said, and the bill should come up for a vote. Another significant campaign finance bill is also moving through the Legislature: a requirement for legislators to make an additional disclosure of their fund-raising activities after the start of the legislative session.
Currently, state officeholders must disclose their campaign finances just once a year in November, and many of them go on a fund-raising binge between that date and the start of the General Assembly session in January, when they are prohibited from raising money until the session ends.
Common Cause, a campaign-finance watchdog group, reported on several legislators who raised the majority of their funds in the interim. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s, was the most flagrant about this, raising 99 percent of his funds between November and January.
The disclosure bill passed easily in the House, and has been sent to a Senate committee. – 30 – CNS-3-16-01