New optimism for campaign finance reform on Capitol Hill

July 13, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Time and maneuvering room may be running out for House Speaker Newt Gingrich and sidekick Dick Armey in their thinly veiled continuing effort to stall campaign finance reform into oblivion.

Backed into a corner by increasingly restless reformers of both parties in the House, the Republican leaders have agreed to bring the issue to the House floor tomorrow for a single day of airing. Then, after disposing of certain appropriations bills, consideration of campaign finance reform is to resume under a pledge from Mr. Armey, the House majority leader, to bring the issue up for a vote before the August recess.

With at least 254 members on record in favor of reform, as reflected in two preliminary votes, the reformers need to pick up only 14 more for a majority, amid signs of eroding opposition.

Some fence-sitting Republicans needed to join about 60 GOP members already aboard to pass the legislation are said to be fed up with the games-playing of Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Armey, forced earlier by a discharge petition to give it a hearing, only to build a wall of partisan amendments to further throttle it.

A spokesman for Republican Rep. Christopher Shays, co-sponsor with Democratic Rep. Martin Meehan of the pivotal bill bearing their names that would ban unregulated "soft" money and restrict issue-advocacy ads close to elections, says Mr. Gingrich's "disingenuousness" has backfired. His conspicuous and transparent foot-dragging, says Fred Wertheimer, head of the pro-reform Democracy 21 group, has "helped us enormously. Every time he tries to rip off the process," Mr. Wertheimer said, "he builds support for the ban on soft money."

At the same time, backing for reform is surfacing in the business community, heretofore strongly against it. Some 35 business leaders, led by investor Jerome Kohlberg and including super-entrepreneur Warren Buffett, recently formed a Business Advisory Council of the Campaign Reform Project to, in Mr. Kohlberg's words, "shatter the myth that business is interested only in perpetuating the system."

Also, on the intellectual debate front, the 1976 Supreme Court decision in Buckley vs. Valeo equating campaign spending with free speech, thereby protecting it under the First Amendment, is newly under fire. Nine former officials of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has long been on record in support of that decision, have called for overturning it and banning soft money.

They wrote recently that the decision in treating the spending of money "as though it were pure speech" ignored "the long-established Supreme Court rule that when speech is inextricably intertwined with conduct, the conduct may be regulated if it threatens to cause serious harm."

Unregulated campaign spending does this, they say, because it permits "unfair domination of the electoral process by a small group of extremely wealthy persons," distorting "the principle of political equality underlying the First Amendment itself."

This view has itself come under fire from the current leadership of the ACLU. Nadine Strossen, the president, and two other leaders have replied in support of the constitutionality of the Buckley ruling. A provision of Shays-Meehan barring attacks on FTC candidates in ostensibly issue-advocacy ads close to an election, they have written, "is what the First Amendment was intended to correct."

As long as Shays-Meehan or its sister legislation in the Senate sponsored by Republican John McCain and Democrat Russell Feingold "masquerade as reform," they have charged, "neither Congress nor President Clinton will get serious about true reform, which we believe lies in the direction of fair and adequate public financing."

Public financing, however, is considered to have no chance of enactment for the foreseeable future because of Republican opposition. The McCain-Feingold bill has majority support in the Senate but was successfully filibustered earlier. The hope of reformers is that if Shays-Meehan can be passed next month in the House, momentum will be built to achieve the extra votes to defeat another Senate filibuster next year.

First, however, the reformers in the House must run a gantlet of spoiler amendments thrown in their way by Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Armey. Negotiations are said to be under way to limit their number and set a deadline for calling for a final vote, in what shapes up as the major fight in the House before the good legislators head for the beaches and mountains.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 7/13/98

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