Could Campaign-Finance Reform Really Pass?

Current debate on Capitol Hill highlights distance between the two reform camps

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

After being repeatedly deep-sixed by the leadership, pilloried by the Christian right, and declared done with by the pundits, campaign-finance reform is back on Capitol Hill.

In fact, the proposals to begin to overhaul the nation's political system are expected to dominate the House debate July 29. Supporters are even cautiously optimistic a key bill may finally pass - that's if it can overcome the legislative traps set by a leadership determined to bury it.

"I feel like we're in the middle of a minefield," says Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, a key proponent of reform.

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Supporters say the stakes are nothing less than the health of the nation's democratic process: the campaign coffers of both parties are now overflowing with tens of millions of dollars in special interest money. Reformers say that feeds the power of those wealthy supporters, along with public cynicism and voter apathy.

Opponents claim the efforts to staunch the free flow of campaign cash amount to an assault on free speech. Anyone with money should be able to spend it to make their political case, they argue, the Constitution says so.

"Our goal should be a system ... that values political participation and encourages the exercise of our precious First Amendment rights by allowing voters to contribute freely to the candidate of their choice," says House majority whip Tom Delay of Texas.

But for many seasoned political hands, the decade-long fight over campaign-finance reform has more to do with protecting whichever party is in power.

"Those who are determined to keep the status quo are very determined," says Rep. Sander Levin (D) of Michigan. "What they're missing is that the status quo is distorting this institution, no matter who's in the majority."

President Bush vetoed a Democratic campaign-finance reform bill in 1992. Four years later, the House Democratic leadership nixed a proposal that had squeaked by in the Senate.

The most resilient bill now in the House is called Shays-Meehan after its authors, Representative Shays and Rep. Martin Meehan (D) of Massachusetts. The bipartisan proposal would ban unlimited contributions to political parties known as soft money and regulate so-called issue ads funded by independent groups.

The bill would also put into law a Supreme Court decision stating that workers cannot be forced to pay for political activities. It would beef up the Federal Elections Commission's disclosure regulations, requiring filings be made electronically and posted on the Internet. And if candidates don't agree to limit spending their own capital to $50,000, it would ban "coordinated party" contributions to them.

This year, the bill has wound a torturous path through the House, overcoming roadblocks built by Speaker Newt Gingrich. Among other tactics, he sprang debates without notice, promised votes, and then reneged.

That prompted a dozen rebellious Republicans to join with Democrats this spring and petition to demand the bill go the floor. The Speaker backed down, and again promised floor action before the August recess.

The reformers are expected to get their vote this week, but the leadership invoked an unusual legislative procedure. Called "Queen of the Hill," the Shays-Meehan proposal must get more votes than 10 other proposals. It also has to survive votes on more than 30 amendments, most of which have been proposed by opponents.

Their purpose is to alienate Democrats - who have been remarkably united in their support for Shays-Meehan.

Two of those amendments, which Representative Levin calls "poison pills," would undermine the so-called "motor-voter bill." Always a Democratic favorite, it's designed to increase voter registration. Republicans contend it encourages fraud.

One of the amendments would require voters to produce a photo ID; another would roll back the provision that allows for mail-in registration.

To some, such amendments show the extent to which the leadership will go to thwart the bill.

"If we didn't have the votes [to win], they wouldn't have to do all of this," says Meredith McGehee, legislative director of the reform group Common Cause. "But nothing's a slam dunk when you've got the leadership against you."

The Christian Coalition is also opposed to the bill, especially the provision limiting the so-called issue ads. Right now, the law does not regulate the campaign ads paid for by special interest groups, like unions and the Coalition, as long as they don't "expressly advocate" voting for or against a candidate. In the last election, union and anti-abortion groups poured millions of dollars into ads that clearly suggested one candidate was preferable to another.

Reformers contend that clearly violated the intent, if not the letter, of the law. But independent groups, like the Christian Coalition, say they're simply exercising their free speech rights.

"Shays-Meehan threatens citizens groups ability to communicate freely about issues that are important them," says Jeff Kwitowski, the Christian Coalition's grassroots legislative liaison.

If the bill does pass the House, the Senate version, known as McCain-Feingold, still must be approved. And that may not happen this year.

"It's conceivable that part of the strategy in the House is to do it so late that it can't be taken up in the Senate," says Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts. That was part of the strategy used by Democratic reform opponents in 1994, which infuriated many Republicans.

Ironically, one of the most outspoken advocates for campaign-finance reform in 1993 was the minority firebrand Rep. Newt Gingrich. He railed against the excess of special interest money in the system, contending it created a "spectacle of a grotesque distortion of the popular will."

In the past few months, he's kept conspicuously quiet on the issue publicly. But he privately made his displeasure known to the current crop of rebellious Republican reformers.

"I'm in the doghouse," says Shays. "I'm in more than the doghouse."

Nonetheless, if he loses this round, Shays says he'll keep bringing the issue up until it does pass, no matter what his party's leadership thinks.

"I made a commitment to my constituents and my family," he says.

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