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Gingrich's Empty Victory

Watering down of campaign reform causes House backlash

March 31, 1998

At a town hall meeting in New Hampshire in 1995, House Speaker Newt Gingrich shook hands with President Clinton to seal a promise of real campaign finance reform. Last November, he renewed the pledge, calling for a "very fair, bipartisan process of voting" on campaign finance reform. When the Speaker begins his fall reelection campaign, he is likely to point to this week as the time he made good on his promise.

Yes, the House leader scheduled four finance reform bills for a vote this week--but then he engineered a huge legislative obstacle to their passage. In any event, all have been rendered toothless or would do little to address the root problem behind the campaign finance reform scandals. That problem is "soft money," donations to national political parties that are in fact used, through a legal loophole, to put out thinly disguised campaign ads for political candidates.

A genuine campaign finance reform bill--authored by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.)--came before the House last week. It would have banned unregulated and unlimited soft money donations and established exacting disclosure requirements. Informal tallies showed a majority of representatives supporting it. Gingrich took it off the voting calendar.

The failure of Shays-Meehan, after last month's defeat of a similar Senate bill, McCain-Feingold, might appear to be the death knell for campaign finance reform. The good news is that suppressive efforts by House and Senate leaders seem only to have reignited bipartisan enthusiasm for reform below the leadership level.

More than 180 representatives have signed a petition that would bring Shays-Meehan to a vote on the House floor despite Gingrich's efforts. Of the 243 representatives who have not yet signed the petition, dozens say they will do so if Gingrich fails to make good on his promise to hold a "very fair, bipartisan" vote on Shays-Meehan. Most signatories are moderates--Democrats and Republicans whom House and Senate leaders cannot afford to ignore.

It's not hard to understand why congressional Republicans are resisting reform: Last year the GOP raised nearly 50% more soft money than Democrats. Why should Republican legislators want to dismantle a system that has benefited them so disproportionately? Unless the House petition succeeds, this may be the sad reality of elective politics.

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