Supporters insist campaign-finance reform down but not out

Tuesday, March 31, 1998

House Republican leaders derailed campaign-finance legislation Monday night over cries from Democrats who had demanded a vote on their own plan.

Operating under restrictive rules that limited debate, prohibited amendments and required a two-thirds majority for passage, members voted 337-74 to reject a Republican-drafted bill that contained several provisions objectionable to both political parties.

But proponents of campaign-finance reform celebrated Monday night's events saying the GOP leadership's attempt to flatten the issue has actually pumped it up.

“What happened last night was the Republican leadership ran a sham debate and a phony process intended to kill real reform,” said Don Simon, general counsel for Common Cause, a nonprofit group supporting changes in campaign financing. “I think it backfired on them.”

With renewed vigor, Democrats and a few Republicans promised to pressure colleagues to support a parliamentary measure that would, if successful, allow them to bypass the traditional committee process and automatically schedule their bills for votes.

“It's the only way left to reverse this fraud that's perpetuated on us here tonight,” said Rep. Scotty Baesler, D-Ky. “Campaign finance will not die today. The game is not over.”

The effort requires 218 signatures, a majority of the House. So far, just 188 members—182 Democrats and six Republicans—have signed what is known as a “discharge petition.”

“I think the game plan now is to take what we hope will be some momentum here from what happened last night and transfer it to some signatures to our discharge petition,” said Will Keyser, press secretary for Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass. “I think we got eight more yesterday.”

Meehan was to hold a news conference today to rally support for a bipartisan reform bill he's sponsoring with Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn.

The Shays-Meehan bill extends a ban on soft money donations to state parties, meaning those loosely restricted gifts from businesses and labor unions would no longer be available to finance congressional campaigns.

Common Cause's Simon said his group, too, plans to put “grassroots pressure” on House members to sign the petition and support Shays-Meehan. Simon said he expects success.

“We think there's a majority that supports bipartisan reform,” Simon said. “The reason we went through the complicated and underhanded shenanigans Monday night is because the leadership sees that majority, and they had to do whatever it took to kill it.”

Even some Republicans criticized the process that brought four campaign-finance bills to the floor under procedures typically reserved for the least controversial measures.

The harshest critics said GOP leaders rigged the process to allow a vote on reform—as Speaker Newt Gingrich had promised—while killing the legislation at the same time.

“When we act with such transparent tactics, can we blame the public for giving up hope?” asked Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark. “Do we really believe that we can go home and tell our constituents that we had an honest debate and vote on reform? I don't think so.”

After promising for months to schedule a vote on campaign finance reform by the end of March, Republican leaders last week postponed debate until late April. But on Friday, they reversed their decision and placed four bills on the floor under the restrictive procedures.

The leading bill, sponsored by Bill Thomas, R-Calif., offered a partial soft money ban, higher contribution limits, stricter disclosure and increased penalties against non-citizens who donate to campaigns.

But few expected the Thomas bill to pass since it included provisions members of both parties find offensive.

Generally, Democrats disagree with a provision requiring unions to give individual members the right to decide whether their dues may be used for political activity. They say it's designed to interfere with the AFL-CIO's long-standing support for their party.

Many Republicans challenge contribution limits on grounds that such restrictions violate First Amendment speech rights.

After the House voted the Thomas bill down, Republican leaders offered three more related bills.

House members approved 369-43 a measure to tighten the prohibition against noncitizens making donations or expenditures in connection with federal elections. The House defeated 246-166 another measure, often called “paycheck protection,” that would have required unions to get written permission from individual members before spending their dues for political activity.

A measure requiring stronger disclosure of contributions passed 405-6.

“Clearly yesterday's vote was a complete repudiation of the Thomas bill and shows how paycheck protection stands when put out on its own,” Keyser said. “I think those are powerful messages, certainly unintended messages from the Republican leadership's standpoint.”