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Jewish World Review July 23, 2001 / 3 Menachem-Av 5761

Bill Schneider

William
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http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE U.S. House of Representatives is not known for its sense of irony. But ironies abound in the July 12 House vote on campaign finance reform.

Irony No. 1. Democrats beat Republicans on a crucial test of party loyalty -- and set back their cause. In an unusual act of defiance, 19 Republicans voted with the Democratic minority to challenge the GOP leadership's control of the House floor. So what happened? The Democrats' campaign finance reform bill has been shelved indefinitely.

Irony No. 2. Republicans, who were supposed to be embarrassed by the defeat, managed to spin it into a victory. The GOP spin: reformers defeated their own bill by voting not to allow it to come up for a vote. As Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the archenemy of campaign finance reform, put it, "Reformers killed reform."

Irony No. 3. Each side gets to argue an unprovable point. Republicans claim Democrats didn't have the votes to pass campaign finance reform. But they didn't allow the proposition to be tested. Democrats insist that Republicans refused to allow a vote on the issue. But they did, under a procedure that Democrats struck down.

The GOP leadership would have forced a vote on every one of 14 amendments designed to hold the Democrats' fragile coalition together. It is unlikely the coalition would have survived all those votes. But who's to blame here? The Republicans for requiring separate votes? Or the Democrats for failing to build a coalition hardy enough to withstand such challenges?

Irony No. 4. Both sides "won" by losing. Democrats "won" by averting an outright defeat of campaign finance reform, which would have been the likely result if the issue had been voted on under the GOP rules. "The issue is not going away," Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) pledged after the House rules vote.

Republicans "won" by averting a vote on the issue. Republicans did not have to cast a vote against reform, which could have been difficult to explain -- especially for those among the 54 House Republicans who voted for the Shays-Meehan bill in 1999 but who were not prepared to do so this year, when the House vote actually mattered. This year, unlike 1999, they could not rely on the Senate to stop the measure.

Irony No. 5. Republicans pulled a "Clinton." When Bill Clinton was President, he used to drive Republicans crazy by stealing their issues. The GOP Congress would pass welfare reform legislation or a balanced budget bill, and President Clinton would veto it, saying, "I'm for that -- but not that much."

In the House this year, Republicans rallied behind an alternative campaign finance reform bill that would limit but not ban soft money. The message? "We're for reform, but not that much." Which is more or less the same thing Republicans are doing on the Patients' Bill of Rights and prescription drug benefits. Turnabout is fair play.

Irony No. 6. Democrats may not have been entirely unhappy to see campaign finance reform stalled. In recent years, Democrats have kept pace with Republicans in raising soft money. But Republicans still enjoy a substantial advantage in raising regulated hard money contributions. A Democratic campaign consultant told The Washington Post«MDNM», "There is absolute unanimity on the part of the Democratic consulting community that this bill is a disaster for Democrats."

Irony No. 7. The Shays-Meehan bill, intended to curb the influence of special interests, occasioned a huge lobbying effort by special interests. Arrayed against the bill were the National Rifle Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Right-to-Life Committee, the National Education Association and many labor unions. They opposed provisions to restrict issue advertising by independent interest groups. Meanwhile, the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and the AARP flooded the House with letters and e-mail messages.

Irony No. 8. The measure got a lot of support from public interest groups. But not much public interest. Yes, polls showed a high level of public support for campaign finance reform. But the issue was rated very low as a voter priority. Representatives came back from their Fourth of July recess talking about how rarely the issue came up in public forums.

Irony No. 9. Sen. John McCain claims a mandate for campaign finance reform as a result of the 2000 presidential primaries. But McCain did not do well because he rode the campaign finance reform issue to victory. He did well because he was the "un-Clinton," defying big money and promising "straight talk." It was McCain who propelled the campaign finance reform issue into prominence. The issue did not propel him.

Irony No. 10. No group of legislators was more influential in the bargaining than the 36-member Congressional Black Caucus, which enhanced its influence, not by sticking together, but by not sticking together. Several black Democrats endorsed the alternative bill favored by the Republican leadership. What drove them to oppose the Shays-Meehan bill? One word: Florida. Black legislators suddenly realized that banning soft money might doom efforts to protect minority voting rights.

Division increased the Black Caucus's bargaining power. The reform bill's sponsors had to make changes to attract black support. Those changes are what enabled House Republican leaders to stop the bill, by insisting that they be voted on, one at a time.

Campaign finance is an issue that gets a lot of lip service, from politicians and from the public. What it lacks is serious commitment. That's what this year's debate proved.

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© 2001, William Schneider