Campaign reform foes put on quite a show

February 15, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- For sheer hypocrisy, there's seldom been anything to match the display put on by the House foes of campaign finance reform in their failed effort to keep unregulated "soft money" flowing into the federal election system.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who has spent years trying to kill all efforts to shut off the spigot or even reduce its flow, proposed with a straight face ending all soft money immediately, in a transparent effort to shake loose members facing tough re-election fights in November.

The move came on the heels of an overnight decision by the House reform leaders, Republican Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Democrat Marty Meehan of Massachusetts, to change the effective date to the day after this November's elections -- to keep those same members aboard.

Mr. Armey was joined by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, the real ringleader of the opposition. Arguing that the Shays-Meehan bill would imperil the free speech of voters and cripple the parties, he pleaded, "Don't gag America." Democratic Rep. Barney Frank, the liberal the Republicans most love to hate, observed that overnight "the First Amendment and freedom of speech have gained defenders they never had before."

Mr. DeLay, directing traffic for the opposition, called to the microphone in the well of the House fellow Republicans equally determined to kill the modest yet most significant campaign finance reform in a generation.

But countering that display, Mr. Shays yielded time to some of the 41 Republicans who bucked the GOP leadership to speak for the bill.

One foe dusted off the argument that the bill, by shutting off soft money, was nothing more than "an incumbent protection act" that would make it harder for challengers to compete.

Mr. Meehan rose and noted that in the last two elections, with soft money flowing, 98 percent of incumbents seeking re-election had kept their seats.

Some of the amendments designed to force a disruptive House-Senate conference were so blatant as to be laughable.

The bill would prohibit "issue advocacy ads" in the 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election, but the gun lobby, headed by the National Rifle Association, sought an exception. It tried to rally all of the congressmen who have received its booty by pushing an amendment to free gun-rights ads from the prohibition.

At that, it failed by only 10 votes.

Perhaps the best argument thrown into the pot by the opponents was their contention that an 11th-hour change would permit candidates to use soft money until the end of this year to "retire outstanding debts" from this fall's election. They argued that the provision would enable the Democrats, who have raised much more soft money than regulated "hard money," to use the former to pay off hard-money spending bills.

The Democrats disputed that view, but the White House seized on it to express concern, without saying the president would veto the bill if it came to him. To the last, President Bush ducked the question, the macho leadership he has displayed in the war on terrorism conspicuously missing in action.

The stench of the Enron scandal hung over the debate. But in case the Republicans were unable to detect it, several Democrats helpfully pointed out to them that because of the energy-trading giant's contributions to both parties there was, as Mr. Meehan put it, "a cloud hanging over this Capitol and the White House."

But Mr. Armey, for himself and his brethren, was having none of it. He stoutly insisted that he had never been influenced or corrupted by soft money "and never will be corrupted, and I do not believe any of my colleagues have been corrupted" by the filthy lucre thrown their way.

To conform the bill with the Senate version by Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, the House agreed to double the current $1,000 hard-money limit on individual contributions. But arch-foe Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, warned he would try to filibuster the bill to death.

Mr. McCain says it won't work. Sixty votes can stop a filibuster in the Senate, and his bill passed by 59. It will be surprising if the Enron outrage can't shake one more Senate vote loose.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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