Petition Pushes House GOP Leadership To Schedule Campaign Finance Debate
By Jeffrey L. Katz, CQ Staff Writer
(CQ, April 25) -- Republican leaders who have tried to kill comprehensive campaign finance legislation in both chambers this year must now contend with an unexpected challenge -- a protracted, election-year debate on the issue in the House.
Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., agreed to bring the matter to the floor in May after a small but growing group of Republican rebels joined with Democrats to force the action. Gingrich relented April 22 when it appeared that advocates of campaign finance legislation were moving toward the 218 signatures they needed on a discharge petition that would have cost GOP leaders control of the floor and allowed backers to debate a variety of campaign finance bills on their own terms.
"This is a great day for democracy," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. Shays and other renegades had fought back after Gingrich prevented them from offering their own legislation during brief consideration of the issue March 30.
The show of strength in the petition drive made it likely that the House will pass something that overhaul proponents can cheer before members leave for the Memorial Day recess. "The public concern for this, the 'good government' groups who are fighting for it and the fact that it's an election year will probably apply enough pressure that it will pass the House," predicted Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., who signed the petition.
But while Democrats and some Republicans hailed the decision to schedule a debate, there was no consensus on which overhaul proposal the House ought to pass. Any change in campaign finance laws threatens the way both parties now raise and spend money for elections. As if to underscore that uncertainty, neither Gingrich nor Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., would commit to backing a particular bill.
"I haven't decided yet," Gingrich said in an interview. "I am not ready to discuss this bill or that," Gephardt said.
And even if the House approves a measure, the Senate is unlikely to embrace it. Lately the Senate has been a graveyard for campaign finance legislation; GOP leaders there have mounted bill-killing filibusters twice in the past six months.
The most recent was Feb. 26, when backers of the Senate's leading overhaul proposal (S25), sponsored by John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell D. Feingold, D-Wis., fell nine votes short of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster, 51-48.
But the equation could change if the House builds momentum by passing something like the McCain-Feingold measure. "If it comes out of there very strong, it puts added pressure here," McCain said. "But I still think we're in for the long haul."
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., an ardent foe of McCain-Feingold, said on "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" April 22 that the Senate is unlikely to revisit the issue. "I think it will not happen this year," he said.
But Lott also signaled that House action might change the dynamic. "You know, in Congress and in Washington," he said, "you never say 'never.' "
Looking Ahead in the House
The next step in the House will be for GOP leaders to decide how to structure the floor debate.
"We now have to work out an open rule that's fair," Gingrich said. "We have to have time for members to get educated. And then we'll go through, my guess is, a fairly protracted process of trying to write campaign law."
The starting point for floor debate will not be the widely known bill sponsored by overhaul advocates Shays and Martin T. Meehan, D-Mass., whose measure (HR3526) is similar to the Senate's McCain-Feingold bill. Instead, House leaders will begin with a bill (HR2183) developed by a bipartisan group of freshmen led by Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., and Tom Allen, D-Maine. Gingrich said he
chose that bill to reward the freshmen for acting in a bipartisan manner and for working with the Republican "team."
Among other things, the legislation would:
- Prohibit national parties from accepting unregulated "soft money" contributions. State parties could continue to accept soft money.
- Increase the amount of money an individual could contribute to all candidates from $25,000 per election cycle to $25,000 per year.
- "Index" the federal limits on donations for individuals, political action committees and parties so that they rise with inflation.
- Require third-party groups -- including nonprofit organizations and labor unions -- that run issue-oriented TV and radio commercials to disclose the group's name, address and phone number to the Clerk of the House or Secretary of the Senate.
- Toughen candidate disclosure by requiring federal candidates to file electronic contribution reports monthly in election years.
There appeared to be at least two key differences between the freshmen-backed bill and the stricter Shays-Meehan and McCain-Feingold measures.
One is that Shays-Meehan would extend the ban on soft money to state parties. Some advocates of overhauling campaign finance laws contend that is the only way to assure that state parties do not serve as a conduit for injecting soft money into federal elections.
Another difference is that Shays-Meehan would require any issue-oriented ads that bear the name or likeness of a candidate and are aired within 60 days of an election to be paid for by "hard money" regulated by the Federal Election Commission.
GOP leaders are not about to cede the field to the Democrats, who have been the key proponents of campaign finance overhaul in the current Congress. "This is not going to be a win for the White House," said a leadership aide, predicting that Republicans could seek to restrict political contributions from labor unions, ban contributions from foreigners and prohibit fund-raising in the White House.
The House on March 30 voted 369-43 to prohibit non-citizens from contributing to federal campaigns (HR34).
But it rejected another bill, HR2608, that would have prohibited labor unions or corporations from making campaign contributions on behalf of union members or stockholders without their approval.
Gingrich Changes His Mind
Gingrich said his decision to reverse course was a manifestation of his "listen, learn, help and lead" philosophy of governing. "This was a good example of listening," he said.
Gephardt was less charitable. "Make no mistake, this was a retreat, not a conversion," he said. "The Republican leadership still opposes reform that reduces the role of money in politics."
The discharge petition -- sponsored by Scotty Baesler, D-Ky., and a group of conservative Democrats known as the "Blue Dogs" -- took on heightened visibility after the March 30 session in which leading supporters of an overhaul were muzzled. (Baesler profile, p. 1036)
By the time the House left for its spring recess on April 1, 196 members, including seven Republicans, had signed the petition. During the recess, backers of overhaul legislation put pressure on those who had not signed.
Newspapers, including The New York Times and The Boston Globe, named the holdouts in lead editorials. Common Cause tried to bring up the issue in town meetings with key members.
The result: Five more Republicans signed the petition when the House reconvened on April 21, raising the total to 204. One name that raised eyebrows among GOP leaders was Amo Houghton, R-N.Y., a former business executive whose support could have led to more defections among New York Republicans.
Houghton said he was determined to clamp down on soft money and that signing the petition was "the only way I could show my feelings."
In a bid to defuse the petition drive and retain control of the floor, Gingrich offered open floor debate, but asked Republicans to remove their names from the discharge petition.
In a contentious, closed-door caucus of House Republicans April 22, several overhaul opponents denounced the signers for end-running the regular process with the discharge petition and for supporting a measure that banned soft money without restricting labor contributions that overwhelmingly favor Democrats.
Later, Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., who signed the petition, said: "Sometimes conflict is the necessary companion with change, and it's not easy. This is not a process that any of us enjoyed."
© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.