These were John McCain's comments yesterday in front of the Senate. I provided commentary via links.

March 19, 2001

"Mr. President, today we begin the first open Senate debate in many years on whether or not we should substantially reform our campaign finance laws. I want to thank Senators Lott and Daschle for their commitment to allowing a fair and open debate, and for their assurance that the Senate will be allowed to exercise its will on this matter and vote on the legislation that emerges at the end of the amendment process.

"I want to thank as well, Senator McConnell, our steadfast and all-too-capable opponent, who honestly and bravely defends his beliefs, for agreeing to the terms of this debate, a debate that we hope may settle many of the questions, held by advocates and opponents of reform, that have yet to be resolved by this body.

"I, of course, want to thank from the bottom of my heart, all the co-sponsors of this legislation for their steadfast support, and for proving to be far more able and persuasive advocates of our cause than I have had the skill to be.

"Most particularly, I want to thank my partner in this long endeavor, Senator Russ Feingold, a man of rare courage and decency, who has risked his own career and ambitions for the sake of his principles. To me, Mr. President, that seems a pretty good definition of patriotism.

"I want to thank the President of the United States for engaging in this debate, and for his oft stated willingness to seek a fair resolution of our differences on this issue for the purpose of providing the people we serve greater confidence in the integrity of their public institutions. Too often, as this debate approached, our differences on this issue have been viewed as an extension of our former rivalry. I regret that very much. For he is not my rival. He is my President, and he retains my confidence that the country we love will be a better place because of his leadership.

"Lastly, Mr. President, I wish to thank every member of the Senate -- especially Senator Hagel, my friend yesterday, my friend today, my friend tomorrow -- for their cooperation in allowing this debate to occur so early in what will surely be one of the busier congressional sessions in recent memory. I thank all my colleagues for their patience, a patience that has been tried by my own numerous faults far too often, as I beg their indulgence again. Please accept my assurance that no matter our various differences on this issue, and my own failings in arguing those differences, my purpose is limited solely to enacting those reforms that we believe are necessary to defend the government's public trust, and not to seek a personal advantage at any colleague's expense.

"I sincerely hope that our debate, contentious though it will be, will also be free of acrimony and rancor, and that the quality of our deliberations will impress the public as evidence of the good faith that sustains our resolve

"Mr. President, the many sponsors of this legislation have but one purpose: to enact fair, bipartisan campaign finance reform that seeks no special advantage for one party or another, but that helps change the public's widespread belief that politicians have no greater purpose than our own re-election. And to that end, we will respond disproportionately to the needs of those interests that can best finance our ambition, even if those interests conflict with the public interest and with the governing philosophy we once sought office to advance.

"The sad truth is, Mr. President, that most Americans do believe that we conspire to hold onto every single political advantage we have, lest we jeopardize our incumbency by a single lost vote. Most Americans believe that we would let this nation pay any price, bear any burden for the sake of securing our own ambitions, no matter how injurious the effect might be to the national interest. And who can blame them? As long as the wealthiest Americans and richest organized interests can make the six and seven figure donations to political parties and gain the special access to power that such generosity confers on the donor, most Americans will dismiss the most virtuous politician's claim of patriotism.

"The opponents of reform will ask if the public so distrusts us and so dislikes our current campaign finance system why is there no great cry in the country to throw us all out of office? They will contend – and this point is disputable -- that no one has ever lost or won an election because of their opposition to or support for campaign finance reform. Yet public opinion polls consistently show that the vast majorities of our constituents want reform, and believe our current system of campaign financing is terribly harmful to the public good. But, the opponents observe, they do not rank reform among the national priorities they expect their government to urgently address. That is true, Mr. President, but why is it so?

"Simply put, they don't believe it will ever be done. They don't expect us to adopt real reforms and they defensively keep their hopes from being raised and their inevitable disappointment from being worse.

"The public just doesn't believe that either an incumbent opposing reform or a challenger supporting it will honestly work to repair this system once he or she has been elected under the rules, or lack thereof, that govern it. They distrust both. They believe that whether we publicly advocate or oppose reform, we are all working either openly or deceitfully to prevent even the slightest repair of a system they believe is corrupt.

"So they avoid investing too much hope in the possibility that we could surprise them. And they accommodate their disappointment by basing their pride in their country on their own patriotism and that of their neighbors, on the civilization they have built and defended, and not on the hope that politicians will ever take courage from our convictions and not our campaign treasuries.

"Our former colleague, Senator David Boren of Oklahoma, recently reminded me of a poll that Time Magazine has conducted over many years. In 1961, 76% Americans said yes to the question, "Do you trust your government to do the right thing?" This year, only 19% of Americans still believed that. Many events have occurred in the last thirty years to fuel their distrust, Mr. President. Assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, and many subsequent public scandals have squandered the public's faith in us, and have led more and more Americans from even taking responsibility for our election. But surely frequent campaign finance scandals and their real or assumed connection to misfeasance by public officials are a major part of the problem.

"Why should they not be? Any voter with a healthy understanding of the flaws of human nature and who notices the vast amounts of money solicited and received by politicians cannot help but believe that we are unduly influenced by our benefactors' generosity.

"Why can't we all agree to this very simple, very obvious truth: that campaign contributions from a single source that run to the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars are not healthy to a democracy? Is that not self-evident? It is to the people, Mr. President. It is to the people.

"Some will argue that there isn't too much money in politics. They will argue there's not enough. They will argue that soft money, the huge, unregulated revenue stream into political party coffers, is necessary to ensure the strength of the two party system. I find this last point hard to understand considering that in the fifteen years or so that soft money has become the dominant force in our elections the parties have grown appreciably weaker as independents become the fastest growing voter registration group in the country.

"Some will observe that we spend more money to advertise toothpaste and yogurt in this country than to conduct campaigns for public office. I don't care, Mr. President. I'm not concerned with the costs of toothpaste and yogurt. We aren't selling those commodities to the public. We are offering our integrity and our principles, and the means we use to market them should not cause the consumer to doubt the value of the product.

"Some will argue that the First Amendment of the Constitution renders unlawful any restrictions on the right of anyone to raise unlimited amounts of money for political campaigns. Mr. President, which drafter of the Constitution believed or anticipated that the First Amendment would be exercised in political campaigns by the relatively few at the expense of the many?

"We have restrictions now that have been upheld by the courts; they have simply been circumvented by the rather recent exploitation of the so-called soft money loophole. Teddy Roosevelt signed a law banning corporate contributions. Harry Truman signed a law banning contributions from labor unions. In 1974, we enacted a law to limit contributions by individuals and political action committees directly to the candidates. Those laws were not found unconstitutional and vacated by the courts. They were judged lawful for the purpose of preventing political corruption or the appearance of corruption.

"Those laws were rendered ineffectual not unlawful by the ingenuity of politicians determined to get around them who used an allowance in the law that placed no restrictions on what once was intended essentially to be a building fund for the state parties. Now, Mr. President, that fund has run to the billions of dollars, and I haven't noticed the buildings that serve as our local and state party headquarters becoming quite that magnificent.

"Ah, say the opponents, if politicians will always find a way of circumventing campaign finance laws, what's the point of passing new laws? Do I believe that any law will prove effective over time? No, I do not. Were we to pass this legislation today, I am sure that at some time in the future, hopefully many years from now, we will need to address some new circumvention. So what. So we have to debate this matter again. Is that such a burden on us or our successors that we should simply be indifferent to the abundant evidence of at least the appearance of corruption and to the public's ever growing alienation from the government of this great nation, problems that this system has engendered? I hope not, Mr. President, I hope not.

"Mr. President, the supporters of this legislation have had differences about what constitutes the ideal reform, but we have subordinated those differences to the common good, in the hope that we might enact those basic reforms that members of both parties could agree on. It is not perfect reform. There is no perfect reform. It could be improved and we hope it will be during this debate. We have tried to exclude any provision that could be viewed as placing one party or the other at a disadvantage. Our intention is to pass the best, most balanced, most important reforms we can. All we ask of our colleagues is that they approach this debate with the same purpose in mind.

"I beg my colleagues not to propose amendments intended only to kill this legislation or to seize on any change in this legislation that serves our basic goal as an excuse to withdraw your support. The sponsors want to have votes on all relevant issues involved in campaign finance reform and will support amendments that strengthen the bipartisan majority in favor of reform and that do not prevent us from achieving our fundamental goal of substantially reducing the influence of big money on our political system.

"If we cannot agree on every aspect of reform; if we have differences about what constitutes genuine and necessary reform, and we hold those differences honestly – so be it. Let us try to come to terms with those differences fairly. That is what the sponsors of this legislation have tried to do, and we welcome anyone's help to improve upon our efforts as long as that help is sincere and intended to reach the common goal of genuine campaign finance reform.

"Mr. President, I hope we will, for the moment, forget our partisan imperatives and take a risk for our country. Perhaps that is a hopelessly naïve aspiration. It need not be. I think the good men and women I am privileged to serve with are perfectly capable of surprising a skeptical public, and maybe ourselves, by taking on this challenge to the honor of the profession of which we are willing and proud members.

"Real campaign finance reform will not cure all public cynicism about modern politics. Nor will it completely free politics from influence peddling or the appearance of it. But I believe it will cause many Americans who are at present quite disaffected from the machinations of politics to begin to see that their elected officials value their reputations more than their incumbency. And maybe that recognition will cause them to exercise their franchise more faithfully, to identify more closely with political parties, to raise their expectations for the work we do. Maybe it will even encourage more of them to seek public office, not for the privileges bestowed upon election winners, but for the honor of serving a great nation.

"Thank you, Mr. President."


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