House prepares battleground for campaign-finance reform

Friday, May 22, 1998

What had appeared to be a united campaign finance reform effort—solid behind a measure sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass.—seems to have splintered into support for about a dozen different plans.

Adding to the confusing mix: Nearly 600 different amendments to the various campaign finance bills.

“Well it’s certainly going to make the debate lengthy,” said Don Simon, general counsel for the pro-reform group Common Cause. “I think there is a concern about what the leadership is going to try to do here, such as concoct a de-facto House filibuster.”

The House Rules Committee late Wednesday placed campaign finance reform back onto the floor but not before drawing lines for what is expected to be a down-in-the-dirt fight.

Although debate was to begin Thursday, the House spent most of the day discussing highway and defense bills. When they talked about campaign finance reform, the members mainly argued about how to consider a dozen competing proposals.

Democrats objected to a plan by Republican leaders to subject each proposal to a slew of amendments and requiring a final vote on the measure with the most support, contending it dooms any prospect for real change. Republicans said the process will provide the most open debate in the history of campaign finance reform.

What remains uncertain is how the House will tackle the nearly 600 amendments, a record, said Rules Committee chair Gerald Solomon, R-N.Y. But Solomon dismissed complaints that trimming the amendments down to a workable list could take all summer.

“It could, but it won’t,” Solomon told The Washington Post, adding that, without interruption the bill could be wrapped up in four days.

The debate, on the other hand, doesn’t promise to be so easily wrapped up. A vote isn’t expected until after the three-week recess.

Reform supporters say new limits on campaign contributions, particularly those to political parties from business and labor unions, would prevent the runaway donations and spending that caused a scandal during the 1996 elections.

Opponents say such measures limit speech, thereby violating the First Amendment. Some say the U.S. Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo equated money with political speech, effectively undercutting any finance-reform laws that Congress might enact.

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, called the campaign finance bills “a direct assault on the First Amendment” and promised to offer numerous amendments to defeat them.

Last March, GOP leadership attempts to tie up debate came unraveled as reform proponents rallied to force the issue back onto the table. In order to quiet the uproar and regain control of House proceedings, the leadership agreed to put the issue up for debate and vote.

Instead of initiating the debate with the leading bill, the bipartisan Shays-Meehan bill, the GOP leadership offered H.R. 2183, known as the Freshman Bill.

Reform advocates criticize the Freshman Bill, sponsored mostly by first-term Democrats and Republicans, for not including an all-out ban on soft money. They claim the Shays-Meehan bill, which prohibits state and federal political parties from using any party-building donations in campaigns, offers the only true reform.

Presently, the Shays-Meehan bill stands second in line for consideration as a substitute bill. The first measure, sponsored by Rep. Rick White, R-Wash., calls for an independent commission to recommend within 180 days after session’s end the best ways to reform federal election laws.

White said: “The only way to bring about fundamental reform is through a commission that isn’t paralyzed by self-interest or partisan politics.”

Most of the other proposals play on the theme of curbing or banning the largely unregulated soft money donations that are blamed for creating numerous fund-raising abuses in the 1996 presidential election.

–The Associated Press contributed to this report.