Online Extra: McCain: The FEC Is a "Total Disgrace"

The Republican senator says campaign-finance reform has progressed some, but the election watchdog is shunning some of its duties

After being tarnished in a 1990 campaign-finance scandal, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) spent seven years fighting to rid elections of special-interest money. The result: Passage of the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act, which McCain wrote with Senator Russell Feingold (D-Wis.). McCain, who continues his drive for campaign reform, talked with BusinessWeek Senior Writer Paula Dwyer on May 12 about elections, voter polarization, and attack ads. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:

Q: The country seems to be getting more polarized ideologically. Healthy competition -- or worrisome?


Traditionally, parties establish their base and move to the center to seek the swing vote. This [year], both parties are trying to galvanize their base to gain victory through an increase in turnout. This polarizes not only the electorate but the legislative process and, in the case of Congress, paralyzes it.

Q: How do you restore comity to politics?


Voters have to reject the extremes. In the case of my party, if we had 60 votes in the Senate -- which is the only way you can pass legislation -- then I could understand some of the partisan approach. But when you only have 51, it's not productive to be so partisan.

In the case of the Democrats, they feel they're excluded, so they make sure they always have 41 votes in order to block legislation. That's the game.

Q: And if voters don't demand change?


America will get the kind of government that it seeks or acquiesces to. But I believe you're going to see a strong reform movement in both parties because of our total irresponsibility in not addressing issues that affect the future of the country -- health care, education, Social Security, Medicare, fiscal insanity, and the war in Iraq.

Q: Should the nation get rid of the Electoral College (in which states name electors who choose the President)?


If you had direct election of the President, the small, less populated states would never see a candidate and would be irrelevant. I don't like the present system, but I don't know of a better one.

Q: Is it time to end the disproportionate influence of small states like Iowa and New Hampshire in the Presidential nominating process?


We're compressing the primary season to a point where thorough examination of the candidates is increasingly difficult, if not impossible. It may not be long before the New Hampshire primary is on Jan. 1, all the others are on Jan. 2, and then it's over. So we're going to have to sit down and sort this out.

I still believe Iowa and New Hampshire perform well -- Iowa because it's a caucus situation, which demonstrates a candidate's appeal to the party faithful. In New Hampshire, you have to do door-to-door campaigning, and money doesn't play a predominant role. I think they should be first, and then there should be an orderly process for those that follow. There are any number of ways of reorganizing [the calendar].

Q: What about gerrymandering, in which lawmakers draw up congressional districts that favor one party over the other?


We need bipartisan or nonpartisan commissions to draw these lines. I favor taking redistricting out of the hands of state legislatures. The commission idea isn't perfect, but it's a quantum leap better than what the legislatures are doing.

Because of what [Republicans] did [redrawing lines] in Texas, we risk having a round of redistricting every time legislatures and governorships change hands. States should only redraw lines after the 10-year census.

Q: What are prospects for a second round of campaign reform?


I'd like to let the [2002] reforms take effect. However, the Federal Election Commission [by not regulating so-called 527 soft-money committees] is behaving like an enabler of the special interests rather than an enforcer of the law. They refuse to address the 527 issue on the grounds that we're in an election.

The [commission is] an absolute and total disgrace. The 527s are clearly in violation of the law because they engage in partisan political activity, and everybody knows that.

Q: Will elections be cleaner this year because of McCain-Feingold reforms?


They're cleaner, and here's why: Sixty days prior to the election, you will not see the flood of [negative] advertising you saw before. And I approve of the "stand by your ad" clause. It has dramatically reduced the number of attack ads. But I think the postmortem should be conducted after the elections in November, rather than prior to them.

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.