Campaign Finance Gets Day in the Sun, But Senate's Shadow Is Looming
By Jeffrey L. Katz with Carroll J. Doherty, CQ Staff Writers
Defying the odds, advocates of a campaign finance overhaul pushed a sweeping bill (HR2183) through the House on Aug. 6 and vowed to pressure the Senate to do the same.
But their chances of succeeding before Congress' scheduled adjournment Oct. 9 appeared not much better than winning the Powerball lottery.
Supporters of an overhaul cheered the House's 252-179 vote for the legislation, which previously had been amended largely along the lines of HR3526, sponsored by Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin T. Meehan, D-Mass. Sixty-one Republicans voted for the bill, more than making up for the 15 Democrats who voted against it.
The legislation would ban national parties from receiving or spending "soft money" -- unlimited and largely unregulated donations to political parties. It would also set new restrictions on campaign-related expenditures by third-party groups.
The vote represented the first time in six years that either chamber had passed a bill rewriting campaign finance laws. The last significant revision of such laws was enacted 19 years ago. (History, 1997 Almanac, p. 1-26)
Its advocates endured numerous attempts by House GOP leaders to block or delay its passage over several months, most recently by forcing them to swat away a lengthy list of amendments. Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, paid grudging respect to Shays-Meehan's supporters, saying, "They did a good job of holding their mark and then passing their mark."
But it appears unlikely that overhaul supporters will be able to quickly translate their success in the Senate, which has twice rejected efforts to pass a similar bill in the 105th Congress. They would need to pick up the backing of eight additional senators to break a GOP-led filibuster. And if Republican leaders failed to kill the bill in the House, they at least postponed its passage so as to leave little time for the Senate to act.
"Obviously the clock is our worst enemy at this time," said Ann McBride, president of Common Cause, a citizens' watchdog group that backs tighter campaign finance laws. "We know it is an uphill, difficult fight. But no one said it could happen in the House, and it happened."
House Republican leaders tried several distinct strategies to discard a campaign finance overhaul, to no avail.
They squelched debate on campaign finance March 30 by prohibiting Shays-Meehan from coming to the House floor. But the ploy encouraged the bill's supporters to embrace a procedural device that would have let them debate a variety of campaign finance bills on their own terms.
GOP leaders finally relented to an open debate on the issue in May. But they made Shays-Meehan open to dozens of amendments, then forced it to compete with 10 other substitute amendments to the underlying bill, HR2183. Whichever of the 11 substitute amendments got the most votes -- and at least a majority -- would prevail.
A crowning moment for the supporters of Shays-Meehan came Aug. 3, when the House voted for their substitute amendment, 237-186. Fifty-one Republicans voted for the measure, outweighing the 11 Democrats who voted against it.
"This is truly an historic opportunity to restore integrity to the political process," Shays said.
Bill Thomas, R-Calif., complained that while the measure banned political parties from using soft money, "it in no way inhibits labor unions from influencing legislation and candidates with that same soft money."
Added Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas: "It is amazing to me that Republicans would support this disarmament bill."
GOP supporters responded that the legislation was fair to both parties. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., asked fellow Republicans to "please put the public interest above their personal interest."
The relatively strong vote in favor of Shays-Meehan prompted the authors of several other substitute amendments to withdraw their measures.
One who persisted was John T. Doolittle, R-Calif., a stalwart critic of fundraising limits. His amendment, to abolish limits on campaign contributions and rely instead on quicker and fuller public disclosure, failed, 131-299.
The final hurdle was a substitute amendment by Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., and Tom Allen, D-Maine, based on the so-called freshman bill (HR2183), which was also the base bill.
The freshman bill would take a somewhat less aggressive stance against soft money and issue advocacy advertising. Its advocates said that approach gave the legislation a better chance of passing in the Senate and surviving a constitutional challenge.
GOP leaders toyed with embracing the freshman proposal to get the 238 votes needed to topple Shays-Meehan. That prompted Shays-Meehan's supporters to elaborately praise the freshmen for their efforts but urge its defeat.
The freshman measure ultimately failed, 147-222, with 61 members voting "present."
The Senate's Harsh Reality
Afterward, Shays-Meehan's supporters made a deceptively simple appeal to the Senate. "Why shouldn't a bill that has a majority of support in both houses become the law of the land?" asked Allen, a leader of the freshman effort who also supported Shays-Meehan.
But the peculiar rules of the Senate complicate matters. During the past year, GOP-led filibusters have twice stymied the companion bill to Shays-Meehan (S25) sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell D. Feingold, D-Wis. While 52 senators -- all 45 Democrats and seven Republicans -- have supported the measure, they have repeatedly fallen eight votes short of the 60 needed to overcome the filibuster.
Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., indicated that the House vote had not changed the Senate's dynamics. "There is no more of a consensus than there was in the spring," said an aide to Lott.
Still, Democrats will undoubtedly try to move the bill again, most likely by trying to attach it to one of the several remaining fiscal 1999 appropriations bills. But McCain acknowledged that there were formidable obstacles.
"I'd love to see a vote this year," he said in a telephone interview. "But I understand the time constraints." The Senate returns from its summer recess Aug. 31 and is scheduled to adjourn Oct. 9.
Democrats have several higher priorities for the Senate's remaining weeks than overhauling campaign finance laws -- including bills to regulate health maintenance organizations (S1890) and to raise the minimum wage (S1573).
Groups advocating an overhaul have signaled they will concentrate their lobbying efforts on a handful of GOP senators facing tough re-election races, such as Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, as well as those who previously supported restrictions on fundraising, such as Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark.
A spokesman for Hutchinson, who was traveling in South Asia, said the senator had given no indication that he had softened his opposition to the bill.
An aide to Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who supported a sweeping overhaul when he served in the House, said Brownback's views were unchanged from a 1997 statement in which he asserted that the current legislation was "based on an unconstitutional premise of trying to restrict political speech."
And a House Republican who is close to D'Amato predicted that the New York senator would not drop his opposition. "One of the main reasons he has been able to survive politically is that he has been able to raise more money than his opponents," said the lawmaker, who did not want to be identified.
© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.