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Campaign Finance: The Buyer’s Guide to Congress

8 minute read

It was, many say, the biggest industry coup of the year in Congress. How did the airlines manage to scuttle a bill that had had consumers applauding? The Airline Passenger Fairness Act–born in part of a holiday horror show of delayed flights and trapped passengers–called on carriers to be more up front about major annoyances like delays and fare prices. In its place, they were able to substitute a toothless promise to be nicer.

Was it the money? In the weeks preceding a key Senate committee vote on the airlines’ substitute, almost $300,000 in soft money went gushing into the accounts of both parties. From January 1997 through June of this year, the airline industry gave Democratic Party committees $1.3 million, the G.O.P. $1.9 million. “Making the charge they bought their way out of trouble–that’s kind of a huge charge, but certainly there is the appearance of that,” says Holly Bailey of the Center for Responsive Politics.

That kind of unlimited “soft money” contribution would have been outlawed under a bill that died earlier this month in the Senate, the victim of another procedural mugging, by G.O.P. Senator Mitch McConnell and Republican majority leader Trent Lott.

So the perception, if not the reality, of vote buying remains. In this chart, TIME reviews some of the issues of the session that is about to wrap up–and the interests, and the soft money, behind them.


THE ISSUE Whether patients would have the right to sue their health-maintenance organizations for deficient care or for being denied care

THE PLAYERS –The Insurance Side Health-insurance companies, the American Assn. of Health Plans and Health Insurance Assn. of America

–The Consumer Side Trial lawyers and consumer groups

WHAT THEY GAVE HMOs, insurers: To Dems $811,000 To G.O.P. $1,774,000

Lawyers, doctors: To Dems $6,394,000 To G.O.P. $517,000

WHAT THEY WANTED –INSURERS, fearing lawsuits directed against them, wanted continued legislative protection

–TRIAL LAWYERS sought the reverse, hoping to see a lucrative new area of the mass-tort industry. It would protect consumers as well

WHAT THEY GOT –SPLIT DECISION Insurers got a Senate bill that contains no provision for lawsuits against the companies. Consumers and trial lawyers did better in the House, whose bill does include such a provision

THE UPSHOT Insurance companies and the corporations that buy their services win the battle of the bucks. Any reform bill that would allow them to be held liable will be strangled in Congress before it can get to President Clinton’s desk


[THE ISSUE] A bill to let states sue in federal court for violations of bans on interstate shipment of alcohol. Post-Prohibition state laws are now loosely enforced

[THE PLAYERS] –Liquor Wholesalers and Distributors They purport to be concerned about Internet liquor sales to minors

–Winemakers in California and elsewhere They want to sell over the Internet and allow tourists to ship wine home

[WHAT THEY GAVE] Vintners and allied trade groups: To Dems $1,339,000 To G.O.P. $1,623,000

The liquor lobby: To Dems $144,000 To G.O.P. $209,000

[WHAT THEY WANTED] –WHOLESALERS have emphasized the underage-drinking issue, but what really spooks them is that e-commerce erodes their business

–WINEMAKERS want the direct-sales route, which will also give them more leverage with distributors

[WHAT THEY GOT] –WHOLESALE VICTORY Both the House and the Senate have passed the wholesaler-backed provision

–TASTE FOR WINE But House version has an amendment making the law much less onerous to the winemakers

[THE UPSHOT] The amendment is now in the conference committee on the juvenile-justice bill, which is hornswoggled over things like the sale of guns at gun shows. If the amendment dies, it will certainly be back next year


[THE ISSUE] A proposal that would make it harder for individuals to erase debts by declaring personal bankruptcy. Some 1.4 million filed last year, up 95% since 1990

[THE PLAYERS] –The Lenders Credit-card companies like Visa and MasterCard and the banks that issue the cards, plus mortgage and finance companies

–The Borrowers Consumer groups acting on their behalf [WHAT THEY GAVE] The Lenders: To Dems $1,228,300 To G.O.P. $4,232,800

The Borrowers: (Who has any money?) $0

[WHAT THEY WANTED] –LENDERS say consumers have abused the system, using bankruptcy as a debt-avoidance tactic. The stigma is gone

–CONSUMER GROUPS protested, saying the lenders brought it on themselves by luring unqualified borrowers in over their head

[WHAT THEY GOT] –PAY UP, BUDDY House passed a bill with a means test that denies bankruptcy to anyone who can pay $6,000 over five years and makes it easier for creditors to attach alimony and child support. Senate is working on a slightly more debtor-friendly version

[THE UPSHOT] Too big a victory for the bankers. Hillary Clinton has attacked the legislation as unfair to women and children, and even Republican Henry Hyde said the House bill is too pro-creditor. The Senate may bring it up next year. The House bill had a veto-proof majority


[THE ISSUE] Internet service providers such as America Online want the government to force cable companies to give them access to new high-speed fiber-optic lines

[THE PLAYERS] –The Internet Side Such ISPs as AOL and Microsoft that act as Internet gateways

–The Cable Side AT&T, which bought out TCI; Time Warner (TIME’s parent company); and MediaOne Group

[WHAT THEY GAVE] AOL and Microsoft: To Dems: $286,000 To G.O.P.: $911,000

Time Warner and AT&T: To Dems: $886,000 To G.O.P.: $1,356,000

[WHAT THEY WANTED] –AOL AND ITS KIN, which now depend on slow phone lines, are pushing the FCC for access to high-speed lines, fearing that otherwise consumers will find them obsolete

–CABLE COMPANIES AND AT&T want them to build their own

[WHAT THEY GOT] –ON HOLD Little is moving on Capitol Hill–yet

–BUT The FCC’s efforts to stay out of Internet regulation have led to some community battles that have gone AOL’s way. That means at least some parties want Congress to act to avoid piecemeal, local rulemaking

[THE UPSHOT] Huge amounts of soft money have poured into the party committees, and lobbyists are furiously trying to frame the issue their way. Stands to be one of the hot-button issues of 2000


[THE ISSUE] A bill to let Caribbean and Central American countries export apparel to the U.S. duty and quota free, provided that the goods are made of U.S. fabrics

[THE PLAYERS] –The Manufacturing and Retail Side Retailers (the Gap), apparel companies (Sara Lee Corp.), the American Textile Manufacturers Institute

–The Union Side The AFL-CIO, anti-sweatshop groups and at least one U.S. textile firm

[WHAT THEY GAVE] Manufacturers and retailers: To Dems $961,000 To G.O.P. $2,449,000

Labor interests: To Dems $12,424,000 To G.O.P. $528,000

[WHAT THEY WANTED] –THE CLOTHING FIRMS want access to cheap, tax-advantaged offshore production. Both Clinton and Republicans favor it as a free-trade measure

–LABOR fears that more U.S. jobs will be lost. Anti-sweatshop groups are wary of exploitation

[WHAT THEY GOT] –NOTHING YET The Senate version of the provision is attached to a controversial African-trade bill that’s still pending. The House has passed the trade bill without the Caribbean element

[THE UPSHOT] If the Senate bill passes, differences must be hammered out with the House. The two chambers could be at odds over key provisions involving whether imported apparel must be made of U.S. fabrics


[THE ISSUE] If the lights go out at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, who gets sued? The bill in Congress proposed to limit corporate liability for Y2K computer bugs

–The Computer Side Silicon Valley software and hardware companies, backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce

[THE PLAYERS] –The Consumer Side Trial lawyers and consumer-advocacy groups

[WHAT THEY GAVE] Silicon Valley: To Dems $2,484,000 To G.O.P. $3,746,000

Trial lawyers: To Dems $5,758,000 To G.O.P. $114,000

[WHAT THEY WANTED] –HIGH-TECH COMPANIES sought protection from potentially huge awards decided by juries made up of consumers

–CONSUMER GROUPS AND TRIAL LAWYERS wanted to preserve their ability to hold companies liable for damage from Y2K glitches

[WHAT THEY GOT] –HIGH-TECH, HANDS DOWN The law gives firms 90 days to fix glitches before being sued, limits punitive damages against small firms, holds companies liable only for their fair share (big outfits won’t pay the whole bill) and limits class-action suits

[THE UPSHOT] The law was signed in July after close call on whether the White House would veto it. Congressional Democrats initially opposed the bill, but critics say the lure of high-tech donations made many of them supporters


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