Ruling justifies long quest for reform

December 11, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Fred Wertheimer was an idealistic young activist back in 1971, when he joined a nascent citizen advocacy group called Common Cause and was assigned to handle the issue of campaign finance reform.

"I said, `I'll work on this for a couple of years.' Thirty-two years later, I'm still working on it," said Wertheimer, who now heads a group called Democracy 21. "Reform is not for the short-winded."

It has been a long, hard slog for promoters of an overhaul of campaign finance rules. Wertheimer encountered what he called "enormous resistance" on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers were reluctant to limit the amount and source of money they could collect for increasingly costly campaigns.

The Watergate scandal prompted Congress to impose some campaign finance limits, he said, but the effort to ban unlimited contributions called "soft money" and to control the sometimes vitriolic "issue ads" before an election would not produce results for decades.

Advocates credit the four principal authors of the 2002 law - Reps. Martin T. Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican; and Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat - with devoting seven straight years to lobbying nervous colleagues to back the legislation.

Even when the sponsors won the backing of Democratic leaders and got majority support for the package, its approval was not assured. Republican leaders refused to allow a vote on the House floor, and Meehan and Shays had to collect signatures on a "discharge petition," which forced the bill to the floor over the objections of the GOP leadership. Even Rep. Richard E. Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat who shares a apartment with Meehan in Washington, did not sign his friend's discharge petition until the last moment.

"We kept at it, persevered, and we were able to get a bipartisan consensus. We were even able to get President Bush to sign it," Meehan said, joking. He was referring to Bush's reluctance to back a campaign finance overhaul that did not allow individual union members to stop their dues from being used for political donations.

Meehan approached Bush Monday night at a White House Christmas party and told him that he believed the Supreme Court would soon rule "on a law you and I made happen." The president laughed, Meehan said.

Meehan called the high court's decision upholding the law "a huge victory for democracy. The court has affirmed our efforts to stop the trading of influence and access for huge, unregulated contributions from corporations and special interests."

Supporters of the bill worried that the restrictions on television ads might be struck down on First Amendment grounds.

Instead, they were vindicated by a ruling that "made crystal clear that there is no constitutional bar to passing reasonable, common-sense campaign finance reform legislation," said Scott Harshbarger, president of Common Cause. "The Democrats got hoisted on their petard. They wanted to take credit for reform, but they didn't want the effects of reform."

Glen Shor, counsel for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center who worked on the bill as a former Meehan staff member, said the battle came down to members in both parties who cast "courageous votes."

"Probably there was some nervousness about the consequences, but others realized that it was the right thing to do," Shor said. "All their votes are vindicated by the decision."

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