House leaders designed a plan to defeat campaign finance reform Monday night - and it worked resoundingly.
But the issue they hoped to bury could rise again. On a key vote, the Republican leadership mustered only 74 votes, all Republicans, to support what a number of members of both parties called a cynical maneuver to thwart reform.
GOP leaders knew beforehand that the quartet of bills offered for a vote late Monday would spark heated partisan opposition. But the leadership also erected formidable parliamentary barriers to assure that nothing of consequence could pass.
On the key vote, their reform package was defeated 337-74. That was dramatically short of the supermajority it would have taken to pass the legislation. The leaders had approved rules to require a two-thirds majority to pass any of the four bills, hurdles they were certain could not be surmounted.
Getting only 74 votes from their own party, however, clearly indicated that despite the immediate setback the move to change campaign finance laws has not been destroyed.
Still, any attempt to bypass the leadership and resurrect bipartisan legislation faces an uphill fight.
It takes 218 signatures on a discharge petition to dislodge a bill that has been bottled up in the House. At the moment, the reformers are about 20 names shy of the magic number. It was uncertain Monday night whether the poor showing by the GOP leadership would embolden enough members to sign on to the petition.
In addition to the required two-thirds majority, the legislation was brought up under a special procedure that barred all amendments but limited debate to 40 minutes. Ordinarily, that procedure is used only on the most non-controversial legislation.
Congressional watchdog groups and reform advocates criticized the House leaders for what they said was an obvious ploy to live up to a promise to bring the issue up for a vote while guaranteeing its defeat.
Moreover, they said, Republican leaders produced a bill they knew Democrats would oppose while giving Republicans a free vote on a doomed measure.
Rep. Sam Gejdenson, D-Conn., blasted the legislative maneuver, calling it “a process the Politburo under Josef Stalin would have been proud of.
“We’re not here to pass campaign finance reform. This is a plot to bury reform.”
The bill’s defenders argued that while the measure does not make sweeping changes in campaign law, it was worth passing because the changes it does make were worthwhile.
“It is incremental,” said Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., “but these changes are better than none at all. This is a very good beginning. It’s better than going to the American people and saying there will be no campaign reform at all.”
The centerpiece of the Republican leadership proposal was a bill that banned unregulated contributions of “soft money” to national political parties but did permit such donations to state parties. Critics said the legislation would allow soft money given to state parties to be funneled into congressional races.
But the legislation contained two “poison pills” that guaranteed its defeat. One would have restricted the use of labor union dues for political purposes, a provision that drew the most vigorous objections from Democrats. Another would have doubled the amount individuals may contribute to federal candidates to $2,000 per election, and tripled the amount people can give to national political parties to $60,000.
Several members complained that no effort was made by House leaders to attract Democratic support for their bill. Instead, debate on bipartisan bills - a major bill offered by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Marty Meehan, D- Mass., and an alternative by a group of freshmen - was not allowed under the leadership rules.
Among those voicing misgivings was Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., who reluctantly supported the GOP leaders’ bill.
“It’s not a perfect bill,” he said of the Republicans’ offering, “but the process here reflects the dark side of this institution. We can’t go home and tell our constituents that we had an honest debate.”
And Rep. Mike Castle, R-Delaware, acknowledged that “other alternatives are better.” But, he added, “this is all we’ve got before us. This may be our only chance to vote on any reform this year. Besides, a bill that offends Republicans, Democrats and all the interest groups deserves some consideration.”
Opponents also complained that the timing of the debate - late Monday - was designed to keep it out of the public eye and to have limited congressional participation. The vote coincided with the NCAA basketball tournament finals and with the funeral in New Mexico of Republican Rep. Steven Schiff, which numerous House members attended.
But the leadership appeared to be banking on what it perceives as public indifference to the flood of special-interest money that is pouring into political races.
Between 1970 and the last congressional election cycle, in 1996, spending on federal campaigns has shot up from $100 million to $765 million, sparking widespread Criticism that powerful corporate lobbies, labor unions and other special interests have commandeered the American electoral process.
Despite polls indicating voter concern and frustration over this development, campaign finance reform - perhaps because of its complications - has rarely become a pivotal issue in congressional elections.
As Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., noted when the Senate last month quashed reform legislation: “No one has ever won or lost an election on the basis of a vote on campaign finance reform.”
Even so, the way the issue was handled in the House Monday ignited a fiery debate, in which a handful of reform-minded members accused the leadership of bad faith.
“It’s an abomination,” raged Shays, the Connecticut Republican who co-sponsored the bipartisan reform bill that GOP leaders refused to bring up. “How can it be a fair and open debate if we don’t allow people with differing views present their bills and make their arguments?”
House leaders were unmoved.
“We believe we’ve brought to the floor all opportunities of merit,” said Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.