Could Campaign-Finance Reform Really Pass?
Current debate on Capitol Hill highlights distance between the two reform camps
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.