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.
Enron, of course, was not unique in this regard. Not that further evidence is needed, but the Enron case clearly demonstrates how special-interest contributors (a k a fat cats) give to get. Why else would corporate executives invest millions in candidates and parties? If they’re not receiving a return, shareholders should sue. (Enron may well have received favors from federal and state officials in the months and years before the company started collapsing and became too controversial to assist; the various Enron inquires on Capitol Hill ought to be digging into this.) And the system seems to be working fine for most donors and recipients, for the flow of money keeps increasing. In 2001 the two parties bagged $151 million in soft money–almost a 50 percent increase over 1999, the previous nonelection year. The Republicans out-collected Democrats, $87.8 million to $63.1 million.
The Shays-Meehan and McCain-Feingold bills, with their partially porous ban on soft money, are a step in the right direction, but they are not end-all reform. Both bills double limits on hard-money donations. Which means that the execs of Enron–or some other corporation–could throw more money than before at their favorite politicians. If Shays-Meehan had been enacted years ago, it would have done little to slow down the Enron racketeers in their vigorous pursuit of dollars for influence. That’s why it’s important for the debate to move beyond Shays-Meehan/McCain-Feingold.
The need is for reform that does more than inconvenience the influence-shoppers. The long-term solution must be a system of public finance in which candidates can receive most campaign dollars in what reform advocates call “clean money,” that is, funds that come from the no quid/no quo public till rather than the private pockets of the rent-a-politician crowd. In such a system, candidates who can attract a minimum level of support in small donations and who agree to spending limits would receive public financing. Special-interest money would be pushed aside. The first run of clean-money systems in Maine and Arizona have shown that such an alternative can work. There were more contested races, more women and minorities running and a more level playing field. The vast majority of both states’ legislators and statewide officials will run “clean” this November, and it appears the Massachusetts Supreme Court will force the implementation of that state’s clean election law for this year’s election.
In recent years, the reform debate in Washington has been too modest, centering on McCain-Feingold and Shays-Meehan. The fuss over these measures has prevented discussion of more extensive and more fundamental changes. The titanic battle over these two bills, though, is not over. The Senate backers of these bills–including Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle–hope to skip a conference committee by putting the version passed by the House to a vote in the Senate. If the Senate approves the exact legislation okayed by the House–down to every single word and comma–the legislation would then be sent to the President. Bush has indicated he will probably sign this legislation (after the Republican National Committee he controls lobbied ferociously against it), but Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who has crusaded against McCain-Feingold, is threatening a filibuster in the Senate.
McConnell will need forty-one votes to support such a move. Last April, fifty-nine senators voted for McCain-Feingold–a vote shy of the number needed to stymie McConnell. But supporters of McCain-Feingold believe McConnell, who last spring did not attempt a filibuster, cannot muster the votes needed to block reform legislation–particularly in an election year, when there is much media attention and when Bush is laying low. “We might feel differently if the President was willing to put political muscle behind [the filibuster] and trying to switch some Republicans who have supported the legislation,” says an aide to one Senator supporting McCain-Feingold. “But if Bush is not willing to say ‘I don’t want this,’ why would a Senate Republican up for reelection take a risk?”
The authors of these bills deserve credit for pushing their reforms against a mighty tide of self-interest. Perhaps if the to-do over McCain-Feingold and Shays-Meehan is finally settled, there will be space to consider the next wave of reform, even though many politicians, should these measures be enacted, will be quick to pronounce campaign finance reform over and done with. Enron illustrates how far special interests will go to rig the system; true reform has to go as far.