A crusader finally has his day
A historic campaign finance reform bill nears a House vote.
WASHINGTON — He's been called "a true American hero." He's also been called "arrogant" and "naive." And now, as the US House of Representatives prepares to vote on his campaign finance reform bill today or tomorrow, he may finally be called something else: victorious.
For Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, the struggle to reform the campaign finance system has been almost Sisyphean.
Twice, he and his Democratic cosponsor, Rep. Martin Meehan, have pushed legislation through the House only to watch it die in the Senate.
Then, last summer, when the Senate passed a reform bill, it was the House GOP leadership that balked.
Now, supporters have taken the unusual step of using a discharge petition to force a vote on the issue. And while they admit that the outcome is still far from clear, the momentum, fueled in part by the Enron scandal, has lately seemed to be on their side.
It would be an especially sweet moment for Mr. Shays. Not only has he publicly sparred with his own party leaders on this issue, but he has also gotten less of the press attention and public adulation that has come to his Senate reform counterpart, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona.
Shays has also had to maneuver his controversial bill through a body that puts a heavier premium on uniformity than the Senate does and is less tolerant of mavericks - though he himself resists that label.
"I am a loyal Republican," insists Shays, whose soft-spoken manner belies his intense, even aggressive approach when it comes to reform. "I would never want to do anything to hurt my party. But I truly want to do what helps my country."
There's no doubt that Shays likes to hew his own path, however. He dispenses with typical Washington formality and insists that everyone - even reporters - call him "Chris." A moderate in a party that has drifted rightward in recent years, he has sometimes been compared to Sen. Jim Jeffords, who last spring defected from the Republican Party to become an Independent. Although Shays says he tried to persuade the Vermont senator to stay with the GOP, he adds, "every moderate understands why Jim Jeffords did what he did."
He also has a long history of gravitating toward reform issues. During his first year in the Connecticut House, on opening day of the session, he introduced a measure requiring roll call votes and open committees, so the public could see how their representatives were voting. The House leaders asked him to withdraw the proposal, he says, and when he refused, it was defeated on a party-line vote. The attention drawn to the issue, however, led the leadership to reintroduce the measure, and it passed - albeit without his name attached.
"That was a moment of truth for me," he says. "And there have been different moments like that."
A more dramatic one came in 1985, when he was jailed for seven days for contempt of court after refusing to leave the witness stand in a hearing on corruption charges against two Hartford attorneys. In that case, too, he says, in the end, "we got the reforms, and those lawyers were held accountable." But if these early experiences gave him a firm belief that he could prevail against powerful forces, his battle to overhaul the campaign finance system has proved more of an exercise in frustration.
The Shays-Meehan bill would ban all unregulated "soft money" contributions to national political parties, and would restrict third-party advertising in the run-up to an election. It has met with stiff resistance from many GOP members, whose party takes in more soft money, as well as by some Democratic members of the Black Caucus, who fear it would hurt get-out-the-vote efforts.
Whether the bill passes this time depends on Shays's ability to hold together a shaky coalition of mostly Democrats and fewer than 50 Republicans. Although the bill has passed the House before, some supporters are now said to be wavering.
Certainly, the issue has served to alienate Shays from many in his party, and, as he points out, may cost him a shot at chairing the Government Reform Committee.
"He's not quite ostracized by many in his own caucus, but certainly they don't treat him with warmth and reverence," says Norman Ornstein, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute who has helped craft campaign finance law for both chambers.
Indeed, the tension between Shays and his party leaders erupted into acrimony last summer. After Shays complained that he wasn't being given a fair vote on his bill, majority leader Dick Armey took the unusual step of lambasting him personally on the House floor. Calling Shays "unreasonable, naive, uninformed, and arrogant," he said, "I, for one, regret very much that there are people in our body who are that small."
Opponents say the fight has been so bitter because Shays has insisted on presenting it as a moral issue.
"Some supporters of this bill have hurt their fellow Republicans by the way they approach it," says one House GOP aide pointedly. "They don't respect anybody else's opinion on this issue. It's gotten so nasty and personal, because they tend to think if you disagree with them, you're somehow corrupt and not a good citizen."
The House leadership has mounted an all-out effort to defeat the bill, which they argue is both unconstitutional and a poor attempt at reform, saying it would create as many loopholes as it closes. They also see it as a threat to Republican interests - Speaker Dennis Hastert recently said that passage could cost the party control of the House.
But Shays argues that this merely underscores the need for reform. "What a thing to believe - that they're so dependent on corporate treasure money that they'd lose the next election if they don't get it," he says.
And while he admits he hasn't always enjoyed this fight, he says he's been driven by a firm belief that his measure will ultimately pass. "The system is corrupt, it's getting more corrupt, and ultimately people will be fed up and members have to respond. For me, it's not a question of if, it's a question of when."