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Drive For Campaign Finance Reform Legislation Accelerates

April 7, 1999

Drive For Campaign Finance Reform Legislation Accelerates

House Members Begin Discharge Petition to Force Action

With House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) still stalling on taking up the bipartisan Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill, House reformers are responding with the same parliamentary tactic that enabled them to debate and pass Shays-Meehan in 1998. As House members return from their Easter Recess the week of April 12, they will be asked to sign a “discharge petition” sponsored by the conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats (the Blue Dogs and Freshman Democrats will hold a press conference April 14th to highlight their effort). When 218 members — a House majority — sign on, the leadership will be forced to hold votes on the Shays-Meehan bill and four other possible substitute reform bills offered by Republicans as well as Democrats.

Currently 28 Republicans and 91 Democrats are co-sponsoring the Shays-Meehan bill. Moreover, 250 Representatives either voted for Shays-Meehan in 1998, or signed a freshman pledge to vote for its central ban on unlimited contributions of “soft money” to political parties by corporations, unions and wealthy individuals. Shays-Meehan would also apply existing federal contribution limits and disclosure requirements to campaign ads masquerading as “issue ads.”

“The discharge petition is extremely important because it can ensure that the House passes the Shays-Meehan bill promptly and sends it over to the Senate with enough time left in the congressional session to build public pressure on wavering Senators,” said Joan Claybrook, President of Public Citizen. Senators John McCain (D-AZ) and Russ Feingold (D-WI), co-authors of the Senate companion bill to Shays-Meehan, “are prepared to lead a determined effort this year to corral the remaining few votes they need,” according to Claybrook. The McCain-Feingold bill drew 52 votes last September, but not the 60 supermajority required to overcome a third straight filibuster led by Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS). However, public statements by newly elected Senator George Voinovich (R-OH), and private discussions with other Republican Senators, indicate there is real hope for meaningful reform in 1999.

Speaker Hastert?s talk about postponing House action until next year — or “late this year” meaning the Senate could not act till 2000 — is really a recipe for killing the bill. No one believes that Congress is likely to adopt campaign finance reform in an election year, when fundraising and partisanship run rampant.

Enough of hollow promises and phony pretenses of devotion to reform. Last year, more than 200 House members had to sign a discharge petition to get Speaker Newt Gingrich to bring bipartisan campaign finance reform bills to the House floor. And even then, the Republican leadership strung out debate over three months, making sure that the Shays-Meehan bill would arrive in the Senate with little time left to break Senate Majority Leader Lott?s filibuster. It is high time that the House majority, which has said it is disgusted with our out of control campaign finance system, sign the new discharge petition and force Speaker Hastert to proceed expeditiously– as the petition itself provides. It was only a few months ago that the House dedicated hundreds of hours to debating campaign finance reform. Now it is time to act and send a bill to the Senate in time to assure final legislation.

“Big special interest money influences virtually every decision Congress takes,” warned Claybrook. “If we don?t act now, our hopes for the future could be drowned by as much as a half billion dollars in soft money for the 2000 presidential election cycle.”