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Debate Stalls Campaign Finance Reform

Politics: After months of discussions, GOP clears way for even more. The goal, apparently, is to kill the chances of anything getting done.

June 19, 1998|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Demand proof of citizenship. Ban states from circulating voting materials in foreign languages. Require the president to identify private citizens who fly on Air Force One. Eliminate "soft money" contributions.

And if all else fails, create a commission to study the problem some more.

Welcome to the historic and mind-bending House debate on campaign finance reform.

Historic because no single subject in congressional history at the outset has drawn so many competing proposals--nearly 600. That's easily more than one for each of the House's 435 members.

Mind-bending because little is what it seems in this on-again, off-again debate. Already, for instance, many of the lawmakers have ended up voting against some of their own proposals.

And on Thursday, the GOP-controlled House imposed a parliamentary rule that clears the way for a multitude of amendments to be taken up--most likely in a prolonged, painstaking process.

GOP leaders said the move demonstrates their commitment to a full and open legislative process. But Democrats called it a "cynical attempt" to ensure that the final product will be so controversial that no one will support it.

With the debate likely to drone on well into August, the partisan machinations promise to get more confusing before it's all over. But in the end, there likely will be little or nothing to show for it. And that apparently is exactly the aim of the Republican leaders orchestrating the current debate.

This is the second time this year that the House has taken up the contentious issue of campaign finance reform.

In March, a cluster of House Republicans was ready to join most Democrats to form a majority in support of a ban on unregulated "soft-money" contributions to the political parties--donations not limited by law that can be used for a wide range of purposes. In response, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) imposed an extraordinary procedural barrier that required any reform legislation to win a two-thirds "super-majority" for enactment.

Legislation normally requires only a simple majority for passage, and Gingrich's ploy effectively blocked passage of any serious reform measures. Thus, only two minor bills passed: one to ban campaign contributions and expenditures by foreigners, including legal immigrants; the other to require more stringent and expeditious reporting of campaign donations.

After an outpouring of criticism, however, Gingrich and his lieutenants reversed course, declaring that they would allow a full, unrestricted debate, starting in May.

Shortly afterward, 586 competing amendments were filed, targeting the 11 major competing reform bills. Although the number of such amendments has been whittled down to 258, House Democratic Whip David E. Bonior of Michigan said that the process still amounts to a GOP "death-by-amendment" tactic.

"The process is designed to be confusing, and it is designed to go on and on and on," added Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel).

Since debate began in May, the House has killed a proposed constitutional amendment to give Congress and states authority to set campaign spending limits. The proposal's premise was that such an amendment is needed to overcome a Supreme Court ruling that all but equated donations with free speech.

The original author of the proposal--from several years ago--was Democratic Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. But in the current debate, it was offered by Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) as a way to highlight the GOP contention that many proposals would abridge freedom of expression and thus be found unconstitutional.

As GOP leaders anticipated, that proposal was trounced last week by a vote of 345 to 29.

In a second substantive vote, the House on Wednesday killed a proposal to set up a bipartisan commission to study the finance issue and propose solutions. But many Democrats, including those who have cosponsored such a bill, either voted no or present--a tactic dictated by the "queen of the hill" rule imposed by the GOP majority.

The rule dictates that of the 11 major competing bills, the one that gets the most yes votes prevails. Many commission backers refrained from voting for that proposal because they prefer more immediate and far-reaching reforms.

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