Like last year’s freewheeling Senate debate on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, this week’s debate on the House version of McCain-Feingold, the Shays-Meehan bill, provided an all-too-rare display of what an engaged Congress might look like.
Not only did the reform coalition break through the barricades erected by the House Republican coalition to win an unexpectedly wide 240-189 vote, it sparked a debate worthy of what is, after all, supposed to be a deliberative body.
For the most part these days, Congressional debates are defined by both their brevity and their vapid nature. Consider the embarrassingly abbreviated discourse over providing George W. Bush with the authority to respond to the September 11 terrorist attacks — not exactly an inconsequential matter — and it is easy to understand why so many Americans doubt whether this Congress is capable of a serious discussion.
During the marathon debate over Shays-Meehan, which stretched through the day Wednesday and into Thursday morning, however, there were flashes of intellect, passion and even humor. Yes, of course, Republican attempts to derail the reform movement by repeatedly attempting to slip “poison-pill” amendments into the carefully blended Shays-Meehan compromise were comically cynical. But they provided an opening for dramatic clashes of honor. One of the most amazing of these came when conservative Republicans — many of them white southerners with dubious track records on issues of racial justice — attempted to attach an amendment that would have lifted restrictions of last-minute attack ads if the messages concerned civil rights issues.
The Republican expressions of concern about for fostering a dialogue about civil rights held little water with Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. The veteran of the civil rights era, who took to the microphones several times during the day and night of debates, ripped the hypocritical attempts of southern Republicans to present themselves as tribunes of the black freedom struggle. “I did not march across the bridge at Selma on March 7, 1965, and almost lose my life to become part of a political system so corrupt that it pollutes the very idea of what we marched,” a clearly angered Lewis told the hushed House of Representatives.”There is too much money in politics,” Lewis argued. “Political candidates should not be up for sale to the highest bidder. Too many of us spend too much of our time dialing for dollars. We should not be elected this way. This should not be the essence of our democracy.”
Lewis was not alone in pushing the debate beyond the picayune toward broader dialogue about the very character of American democracy. “At issue is the shape of American democracy; at issue also is the shape of our political parties. There is a question of balance of power between the parties, but shape matters too. Do we want our parties dependent on the big and powerful or the individual citizen?” declared Iowan Jim Leach, one of the last of the chamber’s genuine old-school Republican moderates. “The system needs reform; so do the parties. In a new-fangled world, what is needed is old-fashioned politics, old-fashioned political parties, old-fashioned people-oriented representation.”