Hurray for campaign finance reform–well, kind of. In the wee hours of Wednesday night, after a cantankerous debate, the House of Representatives passed, 240-189, the Shays-Meehan bill, which has been touted by its proponents as a solution to the big-money ills of the political system. The Republican leadership had taken an over-our-dead-body position–with House Speaker Dennis Hastert proclaiming the bill “Armageddon” for GOPers–but the bill’s supporters were able to ride the Enron-scandal wave and swamp the opposition.
The hours preceding the vote were filled with some of Washington’s most absurd moments, as contribution-addicted Republicans desperately tried to derail the legislation, which is similar to the McCain-Feingold measure greenlighted by the Senate last year. Noting that the Shays-Meehan bill did not contain a complete ban on soft money (it curtails those mega-donations given to the national parties by corporations, unions and millionaires but does permit some soft-money loopholes), Republicans decried the legislation and offered amendments to weaken the bill and amendments to strengthen the soft-money restrictions. But these GOPers had no intention of barring soft money. Their aim was to amend the legislation in order to force it into a House-Senate conference committee, which would then have to reconcile the differences between Shays-Meehan and McCain-Feingold. Such a conference would offer the Republicans the opportunity to smother these bills.
At one point, Rep. Melissa Hart, a Pennsylvania Republican, declared that those House members, like herself, who had signed a Common Cause pledge to support campaign finance legislation banning soft money were compelled to vote against Shays-Meehan and for a GOP killer amendment. (She didn’t mention that Common Cause was vigorously pushing for Shays-Meehan.) If there were an Olympics for politics, Hart and the Republican leadership would win a gold medal for freestyle disingenuousness. Try as hard and craftily as they could, Hastert, Majority Leader Dick Armey, Majority Whip Tom Delay, and the other soft-money-loving GOP leaders could not beat back the push for modest reform. Forty-one Republicans defied their bosses and voted for Shays-Meehan, while a dozen Democrats did not support it.
Representative Chris Shays, a Republican from Connecticut, and Representative Marty Meehan, a Democrat from Massachusetts, owe big thanks to “Kenny Boy.” As the House of Representatives began debating their modest reform bill this week, former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay was taking the Fifth before the Senate commerce committee. While the disgraced exec sat grim-faced at the witness table, Democratic Senator Fritz Hollings, the South Carolina Democrat who chairs the committee, huffed, there is “no better example than Kenny-Boy of cash-and-carry government.” Lay and Enron dumped millions of dollars into the political system–in soft money and hard money (contributions from individuals that go straight to presidential and Congressional candidates)–and they spent millions more to hire politically wired lobbyists (including current Republican Party chairman Marc Racicot) and to snag high-profile opinion leaders (like Bush economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey) as consultants. Executives were coerced to cut campaign checks to Bush and other politicians, Republican and Democrat. The goal was to game the system in Enron’s favor-in regulatory agencies, in Congress, in state capitals, in the White House. Acquiring influence by enriching politicians was an integral part of Enron’s corporate strategy.