Reform advocates say campaign bill faces ‘poison pills’ in House

Wednesday, September 8, 1999

With debate on campaign finance expected to heat up in Congress next week, reform advocates say the first obstacles to revamping how Americans fund their electoral system are posed by many amendments advocated by reform opponents.

“Most of these are 'poison pills' designed to kill reform either by gutting the measures or by trying to break apart bipartisan support,” said Don Simon, executive vice president for Common Cause, a leading group supporting reform.

But James Bopp, general counsel for the James Madison Center for Free Speech, says most of the proposed amendments merely attempt to bring the leading campaign-finance reform bills in line with free-speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

“Common Cause thinks the First Amendment is a poison potion,” Bopp said. “From [its] point of view, anything allowing free speech in elections is wrong. Therefore, [it views] any amendment which is compatible with the First Amendment to be a poison pill.”

This congressional session, reform supporters have pinned hopes on two leading proposals: the McCain-Feingold bill in the Senate and Shays-Meehan in the House. The identical bills call for a ban on soft-money donations, strengthening of disclosure requirements and an end to foreign campaign contributions.

Supporters in the Senate have secured a commitment from the GOP leadership to debate McCain-Feingold after Sept. 14 but no later than Oct. 14. Meanwhile, in the House, no such agreement has been reached, but debate is expected to begin next week.

In the House, reform opponents have offered many amendments, including:

  • A proposal sponsored by Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, that would exempt political speech on the Internet from regulations imposed by the Shays-Meehan bill.
  • A bill, sponsored by Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., that would cut restrictions on voter guides published by nonprofit groups.
  • A bill, sponsored by Rep. Thomas Ewing, R-Ill., that would render the entire Shays-Meehan bill invalid if any part of it was deemed unconstitutional in court.
  • A “paycheck protection” proposal from Rep. William Goodling, R-Pa., that would require labor unions to obtain annual written authorization from their members before using any dues for political activity.
  • A series of bills proposed by Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., that would triple existing contribution limits.

Opponents to campaign-finance reform describe Shays-Meehan as hostile to the First Amendment, which prohibits government limitations on speech.

With its ruling in Buckley v. Valeo in 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down many, but not all, of the campaign-finance reforms enacted by Congress in the wake of Watergate. While the court determined that restrictions on campaign contributions were permissible, it said that spending limits for candidates were not.

The amendments, reform opponents say, merely serve as small litmus tests to check Shays-Meehan against the First Amendment. In that regard, the bill doesn't pass muster, they say.

“Shays-Meehan would throw the First Amendment out the window,” DeLay said in a statement sent to the First Amendment Center. “Under current law, hate mongers and pornographers are protected by the First Amendment so that today they freely distribute their filth over the Internet. Yet under the proposed Shays-Meehan campaign finance reforms, political discussion through e-mails, chat rooms and Web sites would be restricted and monitored.”

But Common Cause's Simon disagrees with that characterization, claiming reform efforts bolster the First Amendment and amendments from DeLay and others were designed solely “to undermine the bill either by eviscerating key provisions, tilting the bill in favor of one party or another or by attaching unrelated or unacceptable language.”

Simon says Goodling's “paycheck protection” measure, in particular, unfairly targets Democrats, who have traditionally relied on union support in elections. But Simon notes that Shays-Meehan already weakens union power in elections by banning most unregulated donations and tightening up rules on issue ads.

As for Doolittle's voter-guide amendment, Simon says the measure misrepresents Shays-Meehan by making it appear that such guides would be illegal.

“Shays-Meehan protects voter guides,” he said.

Simon says the DeLay amendment may prove especially troublesome, contending that it would lift restrictions on corporate donations, a ban in place since 1907.

“The problem is, it effectively repeals election laws that have been in place for almost a century,” Simon said. “It would allow corporations to spend an unlimited amount of money to expressly promote federal candidates. It would turn into a major, major loophole in federal election law. It goes well beyond any legitimate question or problem.”

DeLay spokesman Drew Maloney says the congressman's amendment addresses only Shays-Meehan and won't affect existing campaign law.

“The amendment still doesn't allow corporations to expressly advocate candidates,” Maloney said. “All it does is address the expansion of restrictions imposed by Shays-Meehan. It simply allows continued protection of speech on the Internet.”