U.S. President George W. Bush continued his personal campaign to change previous U.S. policy two weeks ago by renouncing the nation’s commitment to limit industrial emissions of carbon dioxide. He did it shortly after Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman had given the international treaty on global warming a hearty thumbs up.
“It’s the economy, stupid,” Bush seemed to say. American cannot meet its commitments in the Kyoto protocol because of the slowing economy and the energy shortages proclaimed the president as he sent the U.S. delegation to an international meeting of environment officials two weeks ago with no policy guidance. The decision has pushed the president into an unprecedented storm of foreign protest.
Bush received German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in late March, just hours after his spokesman, Ari Fleischer, told the world that Bush does not support the Kyoto protocol and would not submit it for Senate ratification. Schroeder governs Germany as the leader of a coalition with the Green Party, whose platform includes strong support for the international treaty to fight global warming. He used the joint press-briefing to disassociate himself from the Bush decision.
The Bush administration announcement that it would not seek to regulate power plants’ emissions of carbon dioxide is an effective abandonment of the Kyoto protocol. The administration was said to be developing other strategies to deal with change in the world’s climate.
The leaders of other nations from Asia to Europe that provided political support for the protocol are scrambling to determine how best to protect themselves from the fallout of the Bush about face and wondering how far the new president will go in his policy-reversals program. They are angry that the United States appears oblivious to widespread environmental concerns across the rest of the globe. They are frustrated that the U.S. would undermine a treaty that was negotiated by more than 100 countries. Most of all, they are depressed that there is nothing they can do about it.
The U.S. produces about 25 percent of the gases associated with global warming, and its refusal to meet goals set by Kyoto to reduce those emissions makes it difficult for competitors to stick with their goals.
After two weeks of hand-to-hand combat on the Senate floor, Senators John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, succeeded last week in passing a far-reaching campaign-reform bill designed to take much of the big money out of the American political system. The bill would to ban unrestricted contributions to political parties and restrict pre-election ads, among other things.
There were many anxious moments as senators fought to protect their favorite parts of the old system of campaign finance, but in the end, the McCain-Feingold bill won Senate approval with its most important features intact. Opponents of reform offered one amendment after another designed to upset the delicate balance that was required to garner the necessary votes for passage.
There were two major votes in the final hours of the debate that sealed the victory for McCain and Feingold. The first was a compromise on the limit on individual contributions to campaigns, the so-called hard money. Since 1974, that limit has been $1,000. The battle over the hard money limit came as no surprise. Sen. Fred D. Thompson, a Republican from Tennessee, had made it clear from the start that he was going to propose a tripling of hard-money limits, including raising the individual contribution cap from $1,000 to $3,000.
Democrats argued against an increase, which they said would pump more money into the system and unfairly benefit Republicans because they normally out-raise Democrats in hard money accounts. After a week of sparring over the question, California Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein offered a compromise to raise the cap to $2,000 and after anxious negotiations, a compromise emerged involving relatively minor changes that allowed McCain and Feingold to put their stamp on the amendment, claim victory and move on. The amendment passed and the bill was saved.
The last hurdle was on a technical point — severability. Almost every bill that passes Congress has a final section that provides that if any section of the bill is declared unconstitutional by the courts, the rest of the legislation remains effective. Foes of the soft-money ban have vowed to test this provision in the courts and opponents in the Senate tried to scuttle the soft-money ban with an amendment to void the whole law if any part of it — such as the proposed curbs on advertising by independent groups — was declared unconstitutional.
Democratic leader Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota rode to the rescue. He opposed the idea as a time bomb that could destroy a decade-long effort to overhaul campaign-finance rules written more than a quarter-century ago. He zeroed in on wavering Democrats. Colleagues said he probably swayed at least a half-dozen Democrats to oppose the provision. Now the campaign-reform bill moves to the House of Representatives, where its fate is uncertain at best. There, Republican Whip Tom Delay of Texas has a simple posture on the bill. It is: “Over my dead body.”
Will the bill end all of the ills of the American political system and restore confidence in elections? No, but it will help, and its success in the Senate is a signal to the public that their opinion counts. Without the tremendous support McCain received last year in his presidential campaign on this issue, it would have never even gotten to the Senate floor. Democracy works. I think it is great that the people’s disgust over campaign excesses has forced congressional action.
With a strong belief in the impact of “unintended consequences,” I decline to speculate what real impact the new legislation may have in the long range for political parties and campaigns. For example, the new measure could increase the power and importance of those dreaded political-action committees. The big PACs will find their political influence enhanced because the heart of the measure prohibits unregulated soft-money contributions to political parties. By contrast, the legislation does not tighten controls on the largest political-action committees that collect regulated hard-money donations.
The largest PACs, those sponsored by labor groups and large membership organizations like the Sierra Club, rely heavily on voter-mobilization efforts, including telephone banks and vote drives that are not addressed in the legislation. So the large labor groups, corporations, trade associations and ideological organizations that funnel their political largess through PACs may find that they are the largest players on the field because their soft-money competitors can no longer participate.
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