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Meet Senator Thompson

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Weekly Column 04-06-01

Senator Fred Thompson (R-TN)
April 6, 2001
Recently, the Senate took a major step to change the message we are sending to the American people. By a 59-41 vote, we passed the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2001. The McCain-Feingold bill bans soft money contributions, restricts corporate and union spending on campaign ads, and provides greater disclosure and stronger elections laws.
When I ran for office in 1994, I promised to try to change the way Washington works, including the way we finance our federal campaigns. In 1995, I cosponsored the original legislation introduced by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Russell Feingold (D-WI) to ban "soft money" -- the unlimited and unregulated sums of money that flow into political parties. Soft money was originally intended for grassroots party building activities that didn't benefit individual campaigns. Now the political parties are just a conduit for soft money, which goes almost directly to assist individual campaigns.
We were unsuccessful in our initial effort to pass campaign finance reform and the problem got worse. The ability to use soft money to fund sham issue ads created a non-stop money chase that resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars being exchanged for access to the highest levels of government. The final report of our Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Special Investigation in 1997 documented numerous examples of apparent and actual corruption involving soft money. In 2000, the national political parties took in unregulated soft money contributions totaling almost half a billion dollars.
Even where there is no wrongdoing, there are still serious appearance problems when you have all that money going to the parties to be spent on individual candidates when Congress is considering important pieces of legislation. It seems every time we debate an issue we read about how much money those affected by it have donated to the parties. When this occurs, we are all diminished. The American people cannot trust a government they believe is influenced by large corporations, labor unions, and a few wealthy individuals. Due to the soft money chase, we have moved from a system based on many small contributors to one based on a few huge contributors.
I am increasingly concerned that the people we were elected to serve have lost faith in the political process. Too many people do not even bother to vote because they suspect that their voices are drowned out by five- and six-figure donations. I believe passage of McCain-Feingold will help change that. We can help restore the public's confidence in the way we fund our elections by eliminating these massive, unregulated soft money contributions.
While we move to rid the political system of special interests' soft money, we should find a way to increase the regulated "hard money" contribution limit. The costs of running a campaign have increased ten-fold since the $1,000 hard money contribution was put in place in 1974. In order to bridge this disparity, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and I sponsored an amendment to the McCain-Feingold bill that increases the amount of "hard money" individuals can contribute to candidates from $1,000 to $2,000 and indexes it for inflation.
Hard money is the most legitimate and most fully disclosed way for individuals to financially support a candidate. The $1,000 hard money limit had not been raised since 1974 and, given the increasing cost of advertising, was making it difficult for anyone other than incumbents and millionaires to effectively get their message to the voters. Now, a challenger will have an easier time raising the legitimate money needed to compete. The higher limit will also allow members of Congress to spend less time fundraising and more time legislating.
I am proud to be a part of this bipartisan effort to reform our campaign finance system. The McCain-Feingold bill is an important first step in restoring the public's trust in their government and in their elected officials.

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Fred Thompson

Fred Thompson
Former U.S. Senator (R-TN)