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Jewish World Review July 14, 2001 / 23 Tamuz, 5761

John H. Fund

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The First Amendment survives, and everyone has someone to blame for the failure of campaign reform -- LIKE a house of mirrors, almost everything about Thursday's House debate on campaign-finance reform was not what it appeared. In the end, the Shays-Meehan bill (the House version of McCain-Feingold) died because neither party thought it had the votes to prevail in a floor vote.

It also failed to stir sufficient media interest given the escalating Chandra Levy scandal. "Every talk show in my district that I wanted to be on to discuss campaign-finance reform turned me down," says Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona. "They said if I'll talk about Chandra I could come on."

Contrary to most of the media spin you'll read, lobbyists for the bill's ban on currently unregulated "soft" campaign contributions admitted they believe many Democrats were secretly pleased the bill didn't come to a vote after the rules that would have governed the debate went down to defeat, 228-203. "It's all about winning the blame game for failure," says one Democratic staffer. "We use the issue to bash Republicans in the next election, hopefully with John McCain's help, and Republicans pretend they wanted a vote while hoping the public yawns and doesn't care."

It became clear as debate on the GOP rule package proceeded that neither side wanted to test its strength in a floor vote. Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut, the chief GOP sponsor, privately admitted to colleagues that his side "wasn't ready" for the final floor vote. That's one reason he may have declined to press his fellow Republican sponsors to vote against the ground rules that the House GOP leadership had prepared for the floor debate, normally a vote subject to strict party discipline.

For their part, GOP leaders realized they would lose the rules vote--something that had happened only six times before since the Republicans took control of the House in 1994--and so they stalled for time. House Speaker Dennis Hastert negotiated a compromise with Mr. Shays for a new rule that both could live with. But when Democrats complained that they hadn't been adequately consulted, the negotiations broke down. The result was a bipartisan homicide of a bill that often appears to be nine parts symbolism to one part substance.

Democratic Minority Leader Richard Gephardt called the rules package the Republicans wanted to use for debate "blatantly unfair" and added, "All we ask is for a fair process." He complained that the rules required separate votes on each of 12 amendments that were included in the final bill by Rep. Shays and his chief Democratic ally, Rep. Marty Meehan of Massachusetts. The amendments were made largely to buy support from wavering members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Hispanic Caucus, many of whom thought a ban on soft money would hurt them in their urban districts where individual campaign donations often are hard to come by.

"We wanted individual votes on all of their amendments to show they were compromises of their core bill," says Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican who sponsored of the major alternative to Shays-Meehan. "Their final bill didn't ban soft money as promised, it created enormous loopholes for continued soft-money donations for voter registrations and other causes. The proposed rule was forcing them into voters that were truth in advertising."

The reaction of Sen. McCain and his media allies to this setback to their crusade will be predictable. The New York Times will thunder about the cause being betrayed, and Mr. McCain will hint that he might criticize freshman Republicans who voted for the rules package when they seek re-election next year. No doubt Reps. Shays and Meehan will try to bring their bill to the floor again. But Speaker Hastert says he isn't likely to want to bring back a bill he doesn't think can pass. The only other way to force a vote is for a majority--218 members--to publicly sign a "discharge petition" for the bill that would bring it to the floor under an open rule. But such a cumbersome procedure would likely take months, and it would give Democrats from safe districts who secretly want to keep soft money the chance to quietly choose not to sign the petition.

Indeed, some backers of campaign finance reform wonder if Mr. McCain himself is all that upset about Thursday's reversal in the House. He still has his signature issue, some of his media allies will continue to invite him on talk shows, and he might even use the issue to continue his gradual separation from the Republican Party.

While everyone is sorting out the major losers from Thursday's House floor fight, the only clear winner is the First Amendment. Our system of checks and balances has so far prevented our rights to free expression from being diluted by the same zealous campaign reformers who back in the 1970s created the system that they now so vilify.

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


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©2001, John H. Fund