Latest campaign finance measure lands on House floor

Thursday, March 26, 1998

Exactly one month after a Republican-led filibuster snuffed out campaign finance reform in the Senate, the House plans today to debate and possibly vote on a version peppered with provisions both parties find distasteful.

Many Democrats support House Bill 3485's ban on soft money contributions, a proposal many Republicans find objectionable. But the measure known as the Campaign Reform and Election Integrity Act of 1998, also includes measures to curb union political activity and to let local officials verify the citizenship of prospective voters–provisions many Democrats oppose.

“There are numerous poison-pill provisions that make this a very partisan bill,” said Don Simon, general counsel of the pro-reform, nonprofit group Common Cause. “The only way to pass true reform is to pass an all-out ban on soft money contributions.”

But few think the bill, sponsored by Bill Thomas, R-Calif., has a chance of passing. Even if it did, most think it would die in the Senate, which failed to pass legislation sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis.

As the leading reform bill in Congress, McCain-Feingold would have banned unregulated soft money to political parties from individuals, businesses and labor groups. Soft money describes loosely restricted donations political parties use for activities such as party building efforts and communicating with members.

The bill would also have restricted ads that attack candidates but escape regulation because they are presented as “issue ads” not covered by existing law.

Senate supporters fell nine votes shy of the 60 they needed to halt endless debate on the measure, and so Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., pulled the bill from the floor.

Thomas' bill, the first of several in the House to make it to the floor, sports a different take on campaign finance reform.

The bill mandates a partial soft money ban, meaning contributions for party-building efforts may continue unabated to state and local political parties. It also calls for higher contribution limits, improved and speedier disclosure and increased penalties against non-citizens who donate to campaigns.

Opponents to campaign reform challenge contribution limits on grounds that such restrictions violate First Amendment speech rights. They also point to the Supreme Court's ruling in Buckley v. Valeo—a 1976 decision in which, they say, campaign spending limits were judged to infringe on free speech.

In committee hearings, Republicans tagged the bill with a measure requiring unions to give individual members the right to decide whether their dues may be used for political activity. While supporters call it “paycheck protection,” opponents claim it's designed to interfere with the AFL-CIO's long-standing support for Democrats.

The amended bill cleared the House Oversight Committee last week with a 5-3 party-line vote, but supporters said it's unlikely they will be able to gather enough support for passage.

Many of the staunchest supporters of campaign finance reform say the Thomas bill is grossly flawed, even without its amendments.

Common Cause's Simon says proposed ban on soft money in Thomas' bill “doesn't do the job.”

“It fails to end the soft money system, which we think is the true test for reform,” Simon said. “It deals with soft money at the federal level but allows state parties to raise their own soft money. The soft money system would just recreate itself at the state level.”

Simon also said the bill raises contribution limits excessively. The bill proposes increasing the maximum amount an individual may contribute to a single candidate from $1,000 to $2,000 and to national political parties from $20,000 to $60,000. It also permits limits to rise with inflation.

But proponents for campaign finance reform insist the issue won't die if the Thomas bill falters. Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Marty Meehan, D-Mass., last week introduced their own bill—which supporters call McCain-Feingold II since it mirrors the Senate bill. More than 20 other representatives immediately signed on as co-sponsors.

Will Keyser, spokesman for Meehan, said the congressman hopes to offer the bill late today as a substitute but doesn't expect to be successful. The House Rules Committee placed the Thomas bill on the floor with a closed rule, meaning it cannot be amended or substituted while on the floor.

“This is really an unbelievable turn of events to bring a closed rule. It's just a total joke,” Keyser said. “And the joke is on the American people.”

Keyser said the Republicans stifling debate on the bill are “the same crowd that spent all the money carrying on about various kinds of campaign finance abuse in the last election. They've spent literally millions of dollars investigating this and now they are avoiding the issue.”