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Reformers Bloodied But Not Bowed

July 22, 2001|NORMAN ORNSTEIN | Norman Ornstein is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute

WASHINGTON — In twenty years of dealing with campaign finance reform bills, I have maintained my sanity and avoided clinical depression by consistently embracing an all-purpose axiom--never make an advance reservation for a seat at the legislation's signing ceremony. With campaign reform, where the livelihoods of 535 decision-makers are at stake and all, by definition, are successful under the existing system, momentum is deceiving, success in one arena does not beget success in another, and defeat is regularly snatched from the jaws of victory. Undue optimism is never warranted, as last week's farce in the House of Representatives made clear.

But the last three years of dealing with campaign finance reform have convinced me to add a corollary to the axiom above--Undue pessimism is also unwarranted. Campaign reform is like Rasputin: Foes can stab it, shoot it, poison it, imprison it, defenestrate it, and it will stagger back to its feet and keep on coming.

What happened in the House? Although reform foes have labored mightily to obfuscate and shift blame, what happened is quite clear--the GOP leaders took extreme measures to kill reform.

First, some background. In April, the Senate passed by a vote of 59 to 41 its version of campaign finance reform, known as McCain-Feingold. After several weeks of delay by Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, the bill went to the House. Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) promised the bill's House coauthor Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) timely action and a fair process, with a clear up-or-down vote on his proposal, known as Shays-Meehan. Although most reformers wanted the bill heard before the Memorial Day recess, Shays defended the Speaker's decision to bring it up after the July 4 recess.

In the meantime, it became clear that many Democrats who had in the past voted repeatedly for reform--for bills nearly identical to Shays-Meehan--were wavering now that enactment was a real possibility. And it also became apparent that, while Republican opponents strongly hoped to get the votes to kill Shays-Meehan outright, they had a backup strategy as well: amend the bill enough to force a conference committee between the two houses and then get the bill killed there. Aware of the machinations, Shays and his cosponsor, Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass) worked feverishly in the days approaching the House floor debate to accomplish two goals: change their bill in small but significant ways to satisfy the legitimate objections of lawmakers uneasy about the Senate reform, and simultaneously get the concurrence of key senators to have their bill accepted by the Senate without a conference to iron out differences.

Shays and Meehan, working closely with House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, fine-tuned the bill, appropriately increasing the overall limits on hard money contributions to the parties. Reform opponents, seeing they might lose, initiated a late-night revision of the rules governing how the bill would move forward. Instead of allowing changes to be voted on as a single amendment, they insisted that each of 14 proposed changes be voted on individually, something the bill's proponents described as setting up a "14-point obstacle course." In the end, Shays and Meehan prevailed in blocking the rules change--but that also negated the agreement to bring the bill to the floor for debate, in effect tabling it indefinitely.

Speaker Hastert angrily chastised Shays and blamed Gephardt for the debacle. But the action was clearly the Speaker's problem--and perhaps his undoing. If Hastert, with only a six-vote margin in the House, refuses to bring up reform again quickly, he will risk GOP unity on other issues important to the Bush agenda and tarnish his own credibility further. To be sure, the outcome remains too close to call, and reform could die yet again. But it is tangibly closer to enactment than at any other time in the past quarter century.

As someone who helped persuade McCain, Feingold, Shays and Meehan three years ago to move from a broad and comprehensive reform plan to an incremental one, and as someone who helped draft key elements of the bill that passed the Senate and the one pending in the House, I am anything but objective here. But I join with a substantial swath of the scholars who study campaigns for a living--and with every living former officer of the American Civil Liberties Union--in believing that the approach embodied by these bills is both constructive and constitutional.

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