Mr. President. With the impending vote on final passage of the McCain-Feingold/Shays-Meehan bill, we are fast approaching the end of an incredible Odyssey B one that, while perhaps not so long as that of the mythical Odysseus, has certainly been every bit as challenging, suspenseful and epic. Time and again, the efforts to reform our campaign finance system have faced ruin as its proponents have been forced to sail between their own version of Scylla and Charybdis; required to resist their own special call of the Sirens. But due to the incredible commitment and tenacity of our leaders in this struggle B Senators McCain and Feingold B the Congress has found the strength to reach its own Ithaca, and to finally try to clear its house of suitors seeking special favors at the expense of the greater good.
I joined this Odyssey in 1997, when the Governmental Affairs Committee conducted its year-long investigation into campaign finance abuses in the 1996 federal campaigns. With the passage of time, the shock of that investigation=s revelations has started to fade, but it is critical that we remember them, because they represent precisely what is most wrong with the system we plan to change. We should not forget the hustlers like Johnny Chung — who compared the White House to a subway, saying AYou have to put in coins to open the gates@– or Roger Tamraz, who told us that he didn=t even bother to vote, because he knew that his huge donations would get him so much more. These men were on the margins, and they never got what they wanted for their money. But their stories B and the many more like them B contributed to the cynicism too many Americans have about their elected leaders and the skepticism they have about their own ability to influence the system.
Johnny Chung, Roger Tamraz, Charlie Trie and the like may have been unusual in the unsophisticated, bull-in-a-china-shop way in which they tried to play the system, but their essential insight B that big dollar donations buy the access that enables you to get what you want B is one that pervades our political culture. That insight is shared and acted upon daily by the mainstream special interests whose soft money donations have exponentially dwarfed those of 1996’s most colorful characters and who use the access they buy to try to mold the nation=s policies and agenda in their own interests.
The result has been a system that often leaves the average person B whose annual income in many cases doesn=t even approach the cost of a ticket to the political parties= most elite fundraising events B disempowered, disinterested and disengaged from our political process. It causes them to continually question why their leaders are taking the actions they take. And it causes those of us in public life to work too often under a cloud of suspicion B with our constituents wondering whose interest we are serving.
The demise of the Enron Corporation is but the most recent example of this phenomenon. It=s regularly stated that Enron is a corporate scandal, but not necessarily a political one. It=s too early to conclude whether any elected official did anything inappropriate for Enron; I don=t know whether that happened or not. But I do know that a company with an ultimately shakey business model run by individuals of even shakier business ethics repeatedly found an open door in the offices of the politically powerful, in no small part, I presume, because of the millions of dollars of political donations the company made. This is not Enron=s political scandal alone; it is all of ours. And all of us have been hurt by it B politicians who are under suspicion merely because they received donations from Enron, legitimate legislative causes that have been tarnished because Enron once supported them, and, worst of all, the American people, whose confidence in the integrity of our system has once again been shaken.
Fortunately, Congress finally, after so many years and so many scandals, will act to make the system better. None of us is under the delusion that the enactment of this bill will make our system pristine or eliminate the impact of money on politics. Money, like water, always seems to find a new place to flow. But this bill will have an impact, and it will be a good one, and that will result from the closing of the large soft-money loophole that has been allowed to open up in the post-Watergate campaign finance laws.
Before yielding the floor, I would like to commend this bill for one additional reason: it includes an amendment Senator Thompson and I have been working on since shortly after the conclusion of the Governmental Affairs Committee=s 1997 investigation. That amendment resulted from our frustration that some of the worst actors in the 1996 scandals, individuals who clearly broke the law B and were convicted for breaking it B escaped without significant punishment. The reason: the criminal provisions of our campaign finance laws just weren=t strong enough.
Our amendment remedies that by authorizing felony charges for violations of the Federal Election Campaign Act, extending FECA=s statute of limitations and directing the US Sentencing Commission to promulgate a specific guideline for sentencing those who violate our campaign finance laws. The combination of these changes will put teeth into our campaign finance laws and ensure that those who willfully violate them will not again escape without serious consequences.
Mr. President, for too long, we have watched as our nation=s greatest treasure B it=s commitment to democracy B has been pillaged by the ever escalating money chase. It is time to say enough is enough — to remove the disproportionate power those with wealth have over the political system and to restore political influence to where our nation=s founding principles say it should be: with the people and the voters. I am proud that that is what the Congress is about to do.