May 6, 1998
Statement of Joan Claybrook, President of Public Citizen
on the Countdown to Passage of the Shays-Meehan
Campaign Finance Reform Bill
Today we begin the final countdown in this year?s battle for campaign finance reform in the House. Ongoing grassroots pressure has demanded reforms to our corrupt political process. That is why members of Congress rushed to sign the discharge petition after the Easter Recess. That is why the House leadership ultimately reversed itself, agreeing to an open rule debate on campaign finance reform in May. That is why we are going all out to focus the attention of Public Citizen?s members and grassroots groups across the country on the upcoming House vote.
Today, there is only one meaningful campaign reform proposal: the bipartisan Shays-Meehan bill. Shays-Meehan is the only bill that contains a comprehensive ban on “soft money” to national and state parties for federal elections — the loophole through which special interests can buy special favors and subvert our democracy.
In the 1996 election the political parties spent $262 million in soft money, of which $214 million came from corporations and wealthy individuals. The latest Federal Election Commission disclosure reports indicate that the Republican and Democratic parties raised $74 million in soft money in 1997, a 19% increase over 1995, the last non-election year.
Shays-Meehan is the only bill that ends the wholesale evasion of federal limitations on campaign contributions through the financing of phony “issue ads” that are really campaign ads in a thin disguise. And Shays-Meehan is the only bill that has shown it can get majority support in the Senate.
For weeks the House leadership has tried every procedural trick in their play book to block an up or down vote on Shays-Meehan because they knew it would pass. It?s time to let the members have a clean vote on this reform plan. They should support the Shays-Meehan bill with no amendments. Let America see that a majority of House members support the same plan that a majority of senators supported in February.
We commend the bipartisan Freshman effort, which has contributed greatly to the push for campaign reform. But we must not confuse the quality of their effort with the quality of their product. The Freshman bill cannot be characterized as genuine reform.
The Freshman bill exempts state and local parties from the ban on soft money for federal elections. It creates a gigantic loophole by allowing unlimited contributions to state and local parties to benefit federal candidates and national parties. The state parties are already heavily involved in soft money — half of what the national parties raised was turned over to them in 1995-96. The Freshman bill would help transform the state parties into national fundraising institutions.
The Freshman bill does little to stop the growing use of phony issue ads to evade federal campaign finance limitations and disclosure provisions. Issue ads amounted to at least $150 million in unregulated money in 1995-96.
In one stroke the Freshman bill doubles the influence of wealthy “hard money” contributors to federal elections. Limits on individual contributions for federal elections would jump from $25,000 to $50,000 a year; couples would go up from $50,000 to $100,000 a year.
Finally, the Freshman bill removes existing limits ($65,100 in 1998) on co-ordinated party spending in congressional elections, opening up the floodgates to massive infusions of cash from donors with no roots in a district or state.
While the Shays-Meehan bill will not solve all of the problems of our campaign finance system, it comprehensively ends soft money, addresses the problem of phony issue ads, thus curbing the influence of wealth in politics. It is the only bipartisan bill that does so. It is the only true test of reform this Congress.