WASHINGTON -- As the House begins to debate a major overhaul of the campaign finance system, special-interest groups are opening the floodgates and spending big money to try to preserve their right to spend big money on campaigns.
From the National Right to Life Committee to the American Civil Liberties Union to huge corporations, Capitol Hill has been blitzed by phone calls, letters, advertisements and faxes arguing that the legislation would infringe on their right to express political opinions.
"We're open, and we're loud, and we're very clear how we feel about this," said Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association. "What's at stake is what type of political society we live under in the 21st century -- whether we live in a society where men and women can get together and express a point of view or whether we're going to turn over the keys to the national media conglomerates."
Relenting to pressure from more than 200 members who signed a petition supporting campaign finance legislation, House Republican leaders will bring to the House floor tomorrow up to 16 campaign finance bills.
The debate will turn on the two most prominent bills, both of which are designed to curtail "soft money," the unregulated and unlimited contributions to political parties from unions, corporations and wealthy individuals.
The tougher of the two bills, sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, and Martin T. Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, would ban soft money to both state and national parties. The other bill, sponsored by a bipartisan coalition of first-term representatives, would restrict donations only to national party organizations; soft money could still go to state parties, which could then funnel the money to federal candidates.
The Shays-Meehan bill, identical to a Senate version sponsored by John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, would also ban political ads paid for by independent interest groups in the last 60 days of a campaign, if the ad mentioned a candidate by name. Groups that paid for such ads would have to disclose their donors.
"It's not a matter of their voices being denied," Shays said. "It's a matter of disclosure. The truth is, right now, they can say outrageous things about anybody, and they have no accountability."
A final vote will likely come in June. In the Senate, Republican leaders have said resolutely that they do not plan to revisit the campaign finance issue this year.
House Republican leaders have also made clear that they will oppose new limits on campaign donations, making passage a long shot. The way they have structured the debate also presents a significant new hurdle. Members can split their votes among any number of competing versions, allowing them all to fail for lack of a majority, and still claim they supported reform. Even Shays concedes that fewer than half the House members back real reform.
Opponents of the bills are as united as ever. The Christian Coalition, for example, has made campaign finance reform one of its "key issues." It has listed a candidate's position on campaign reform on the coalition's congressional score cards, which are stuffed into church pews and sent to nearly 2 million people.
"What's going on here is first and foremost an attack on the First Amendment free-speech rights of people to organize into interest groups and express themselves," said Arne Owens, a Christian Coalition spokesman.
The National Association of Broadcasters has written to every member of Congress and mobilized its member companies to oppose any free or reduced-rate air time for candidates. That proposal, which some lawmakers plan to introduce as an amendment, is intended to lower the cost of campaigns and make aggressive fund-raising less necessary.
The National Association of Business Political Action Committees has asked the 20 million Americans who donate to PACs to write or call their representatives. The group also plans to launch an advertising campaign this week opposing reform bills.
"We're spending money to protect the right of 20 million Americans to participate in the political process in the way they choose," said Steve Stockmeyer, the group's chief lobbyist.
And the National Rifle Association is rustling up its considerable grass roots, denouncing reform bills on radio talk shows and sending lobbyists to Capitol Hill.
Yet even as they fight to preserve the campaign finance system, some donors are quietly growing tired of a process that is extracting more and more of their money to finance political campaigns. General Motors, Monsanto, AlliedSignal and Tenneco have halted donations of soft money. Charles S. Mack, president of the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, said other companies are exploring the option. If the trend catches on, the groundswell may do more to change the political system than any legislation out of Washington.