Many Lives of Election-Finance Reform

Two House votes last week keep hopes alive - but just barely - for a sweeping reform bill.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's the measure that refuses to die.

Campaign-finance reform - buried earlier this year in the Senate - is still alive in the House, despite the best efforts of the GOP leadership to put it to rest once and for all.

Last week, those who want to change America's campaign-finance system won two crucial votes on the House floor. The victories, while major, may yet only forestall the eventual demise of reform bills. But they also signal that a sizable number of lawmakers want to end business as usual - in which Republican and Democratic fund-raisers can yield $12 million in one night, as they did at separate events last week.

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Perhaps more than anything, the House fight over changing the rules of campaign finance points up the GOP's internal battle between the House leadership and a small but determined group of reformers. Indeed, says a GOP reform advocate, the leadership's maneuvers to prevent a vote on the issue have instead angered members and breathed new life into reform efforts.

"Those of us [Republicans] who support campaign-finance reform feel like we're in a chess game with our leadership," says Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, a sponsor of a leading reform bill. "The only problem is the leadership doesn't tell us what their move was."

As campaign-finance reform slowly advances in the face of withering fire, opponents have used procedural votes and hundreds of amendments to try to stop it.

If first you don't succeed. . .

Top Republicans first tried to altogether bypass the top reform bill, sponsored by Representative Shays and Rep. Martin Meehan (D) of Massachusetts. Crying foul, reform supporters beat back that effort in March and launched a counterattack, circulating a petition to force House GOP leaders to bring the Shays-Meehan bill to the floor. When it became clear reformers would soon gain the required 218 signatures, the leaders gave in. As usual, the GOP's slim 10-vote majority in the House left Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia and his team little room to maneuver.

Next, the House leadership tried to drown the issue in competing bills and dozens of amendments. No fewer than 11 bills have reached the floor - including a measure that would have created a bipartisan commission to study campaign-finance reform and report back to the next Congress after 180 days.

But that effort was turned back Wednesday, when reformers banded together to defeat it.

With that victory, the House is left with two bills as top contenders - the Shays-Meehan proposal and the so-called "freshmen bill," drafted by first-termers of both parties as a class project. The Shays-Meehan bill follows the outlines of the proposal by Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin that died in the upper chamber earlier this year. It would prohibit the use of "soft money" - dollars given to federal and state political parties and not subject to campaign-finance laws - in federal elections. Other provisions would limit third-party "advocacy" ads.

The freshmen bill, a less sweeping reform measure, would prohibit national parties, federal officeholders, and federal candidates from raising, receiving, or spending soft money for any use. It would also increase the amount of money individuals and political-action committees could give to a candidate each year. Issue-advocacy groups would have to disclose any campaign expenses of more than $25,000 in a single district if their ads name or picture a candidate.

Too much debate?

But the success of either of these two measures is by no means assured. GOP leaders will allow debate on more than 250 amendments, an unusual procedure in the House. (Bills often reach the floor with a "closed rule" that limits the number of amendments and the time for discussion.)

Critics who had earlier condemned leaders for trying to limit debate now complain about too much.

"Instead of allowing a clean vote on the bipartisan Shays-Meehan bill, they are trying to amend it to death with irrelevant riders and killer provisions," says minority whip David Bonior (D) of Michigan.

"These amendments are the legislative equivalent of a ball and chain," he adds, "designed to cripple campaign reform so they can push it overboard and watch it sink."

Shays and Representative Meehan won a second victory Friday, when the House rejected an amendment that would have invalidated the entire law if the Supreme Court found any part of it unconstitutional. That measure was aimed at eliminating the soft-money provisions if, as some predict, the courts throw out the advocacy section. Indeed, a host of advocacy groups oppose the bill on constitutional grounds.

"The Shays-Meehan bill is nothing short of an attempt to gut the First Amendment," says majority whip Tom DeLay (R) of Texas, leader of the charge against the reform bills. "It is nothing short [of] an effort to prohibit our constituents from knowing where we stand on the issues."

With the House scheduled to take up funding bills this week and to recess next week, members probably won't return to the issue until after July 4.

Should either of the major reform bills carry the day, each would face an uncertain future in the Senate, where majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi says he will not bring up another campaign-finance bill this year.

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