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