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Republican Leadership Threatens to Bury Campaign Finance Reform

March 3, 1999

Contact: Steve Weissman (202) 546-4996 or Dan O’Sullivan (202) 546-4996


Republican Leader Threatens to Bury Federal Campaign Finance Reform

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert has announced that he intends to stall the Shays-Meehan bipartisan campaign finance reform bill until “later this year or early next year.” This is precisely the same tactic that former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and GOP Whip Tom DeLay (R-TX) — in cahoots with Senate Majority Trent Lott (R-MS) — used to kill reform in 1998. By delaying House passage of the bill until last August, Gingrich and DeLay made it easy for Lott to filibuster to death the companion Senate McCain-Feingold measure in the waning days of the 105th Congress.

This past week Republican and Democratic supporters of Shays-Meehan held a press conference to kick off their drive to change Speaker Hastert’s mind. Meanwhile, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Susan Collins (R-ME) have intensified discussions with their Republican colleagues with a view toward broadening Senate support for meaningful reform. The Shays-Meehan and McCain-Feingold reform bills would ban unlimited contributions of “soft money” to political parties by corporations, unions and wealthy individuals, and regulate campaign ads masquerading as “issue ads.”

“Americans have a huge stake in this fight,” said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. “Unless the campaign finance system is reformed, issues such as Social Security, health care, taxes and tobacco will be increasingly decided by the weight of special interest contributions rather than by the will of the majority and their elected representatives.”

In the House, 27 Republicans and 83 Democrats have already signed on to the reform bill, a major achievement this early in the congressional session. With 250 members having either voted for Shays-Meehan last year or signed a freshman pledge to vote for a soft money ban like that in the bill, there is every prospect the bipartisan majority for reform this year will be as large or larger than last year. Last year 190 Democrats, 61 Republicans and one Independent voted “yes.”

In the Senate, 52 of 100 members (45 Democrats and seven Republicans) continue to express support for McCain-Feingold. Last year, Lott led two minority filibusters against the bill — which required a 60-vote super-majority to overcome. With added Republican support for reform, Lott would find it much more difficult to kill the legislation.

That is why we encourage you to editorialize now to urge members of Congress to hold an early debate and pass the House Shays-Meehan (H.R. 417) and Senate McCain-Feingold (S. 26) reform bills.

As the 2000 presidential campaign begins, it is absolutely urgent that Congress approve meaningful campaign finance reforms. The flood of unregulated special-interest money that produced the 1996 presidential campaign scandals threatens to become a tidal wave in 2000. National party soft money receipts almost doubled — from $102 million to $201 million — between the 1994 and 1998 congressional elections. At a similar rate of increase, soft money contributions for the presidential and congressional elections combined would rise from $263 million in 1996 to more than half a billion dollars in the year 2000.

Uncounted millions more in soft money collected by state parties are also used to influence federal elections. And during 1998, private interests directly spent tens of millions of dollars in largely undisclosed and unregulated “issue ads” that contained not-so-subtle blurbs about particular candidates.

Last October, after years of resistance, the Democratic National Committee finally got the message from the public and came out for a mandatory soft money ban similar to those in the Shays-Meehan and McCain-Feingold bills. In an Oct. 14, 1998, letter to the Federal Election Commission, DNC Counsel Joseph Sandler explained, “The DNC believes that the extraordinary growth in the raising and spending of soft money has significantly undermined public confidence in the American political system.” Recent public opinion polls confirm that the overwhelming majority of Republican voters favor similar action. It remains for the Republican congressional leadership to get it right and stop defending unlimited contributions from special interests.

“The recent grueling struggle over impeachment was replete with partisan controversy over questions of moral principle and the rule of law,” Claybrook said. “The battle to enact the first major campaign finance reform in 25 years provides an opportunity for meaningful political healing. Beginning to fix our corruption-prone campaign finance system is of fundamental moral and political importance, essential to maintaining the democratic integrity of our election laws, popular among voters of all major political parties, and extremely urgent.”

For information on how Senators and representatives your circulation area voted on this issue, visit our website at www.citizen.org/congress and click on the “Interactive Congressional Vote Chart.”