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GOP Tactic Cripples Campaign Reform Bills

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The prospect of enacting comprehensive campaign finance reform this year was all but dashed Monday as the House took up four measures under parliamentary rules designed to ensure their defeat.

Floor votes were not expected until late Monday night, but advocates said none of the bills appeared likely to get the two-thirds majority required under the “super majority” procedure imposed by GOP leaders.

The rare procedural barrier was erected by Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) after it became clear that a broad reform bill might pass if normal voting rules were followed.

“The process has been rigged. . . . What’s happening today is a real sham,” said California Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel) shortly before the House began considering the four measures.

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The unusual maneuver by Republican leaders all but kills any possibility of congressional action this year to correct some of the fund-raising excesses evident during the 1996 election cycle.

Comprehensive reform legislation already has been bottled up in the Senate, but advocates had hoped that House passage of a meaningful reform bill might keep the effort alive.

Gingrich and Armey erected the super-majority hurdle after a small group of House Republicans seemed ready to join most Democrats in supporting a sweeping ban on “soft-money” contributions. The huge, unregulated donations to national and state political parties, which are intended to be for party-building activities, were at the core of the 1996 fund-raising improprieties.

Under standard parliamentary rules, legislation requires a simple majority for passage. But House leaders sometimes invoke the super-majority requirement to call up bills that are expected to pass with little or no opposition.

Outraged reform advocates fiercely criticized Gingrich and Armey for the move, which not only imposes the virtually unreachable super-majority requirement on the reform legislation but also limited debate to 20 minutes per side and barred consideration of amendments.

“It shouldn’t take a super majority to pass meaningful campaign finance reform,” said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), co-sponsor of a broad reform proposal that enjoys bipartisan support.

Like their counterparts in the Senate, most House Republicans have made little or no effort to disguise their distaste for campaign finance reform--or their intention to kill it.

According to Shays, House GOP leaders have repeatedly said in private that “the American people don’t care” about revamping the nation’s election-financing laws.

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In the Senate, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) last month devised a legislative stalemate in which neither side was able to get the necessary 60 votes to proceed. That enabled him to declare a deadlock and quickly move the Senate to other business.

In the House, GOP leaders adopted a more calculated and complex approach, scheduling floor action on legislation containing a limited soft-money ban along with other controversial provisions likely to lead to its defeat.

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The House strategy could offer Republicans some political cover should campaign finance reform emerge this fall as an election issue by enabling them to blame Democrats for killing the reform bill, which contains provisions that the minority legislators oppose. It could hurt some Democrats by putting them in a position of voting against provisions that would toughen disclosure requirements and ban donations by noncitizens.

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Many Democrats were expected to vote either “no” or simply “present” on those two provisions.

The first of the four GOP measures scheduled for floor action late Monday was drafted by Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and backed by the GOP leadership team.

It would:

* Prohibit soft-money contributions.

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* Require unions to obtain authorization from members before using their dues for political purposes.

* Ban donations from all noncitizens.

* Require more expeditious reporting of contributions.

When Thomas unveiled his bill, it was vehemently attacked by interest groups spanning the ideological spectrum. Reform advocates accused Republican leaders of deliberately crafting a bill so full of “poison pills” that it was doomed from the start.

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The other three bills to be voted on Monday night were narrowly targeted measures containing elements extracted from the Thomas bill: banning noncitizen contributions, restricting the use of union dues and imposing tougher disclosure requirements.

Despite his strong objections to the process, Shays said he would vote for the measures intended to restrict use of union dues and to impose new disclosure requirements.

But Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), Shay’s co-sponsor on the broad soft-money ban, said the union dues and disclosure measures represent “one small piece that won’t correct” the abuses committed during the 1996 campaigns. “We need comprehensive reform,” he said.

Among those who criticized the super-majority requirement was Ann McBride, president of Common Cause, a citizens’ advocacy group.

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She called it “a mock debate and a sham process.”

In light of the expected outcome, Meehan said reformers’ “best hope” now lies with gathering the necessary 218 signatures to activate a discharge petition, which would force the House to fully consider the scores of campaign finance reform proposals that have been introduced.


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