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Tim Francis-Wright

The collapse of Enron has given rise to at least one positive development in Washington: the resurrection of the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill. Earlier this week, a discharge petition, to wrest control of the bill from the House leadership, received its last four signatures. Because the Senate has already passed an identical version, the bill is now closer to becoming law than it ever has been.

The vast majority of House Democrats have signed the discharge petition and have supported similar bills in previous years. But in order to make the bill a law, the Democrats need Republican help. So far, they have received just enough help to force a showdown later this year. But to be sure of winning, they will need even more help, perhaps from an unlikely ideological source.

The collapse of Enron as a business entity brought with it attention to the very close political ties that Enron enjoyed, especially with the Republican party. A slew of Congressional investigations and a bevy of press inquiries have shed some light on the ties between big business and federal political campaigns. Enron's influence on energy policy of not only the current, but also the previous two presidential administrations makes campaign finance reform quite the germane topic in Washington. Enron is far from the only company with many friends in Washington and many dollars spent on political contributions.

The Shays-Meehan bill would regulate almost all donations to national political parties and eliminate supposedly independent advertising aimed at specific candidates in the weeks before elections. It would drmatically change the way the the Democratic and Republican parties have raised money in the last few years. Instead of raising hundreds of millions of dollars from a relative handful of rich donors, they would need to raise money in much smaller amounts. While affluent donors could, of course, more easily make donations, parties and candidates would be much less in thrall to specific donors.

Despite an historic vote in the Senate in 2001 to pass this legislation, the House leadership has tried to gut the legislation. It attempted in June to bring it to the House floor under rules that would have required 14 separate votes on some minor changes proposed by the sponsors of the bill. The House defeated the rule on the bill, so the bill went into limbo: without an approved rule from the Rules Committee, legislation cannot go before the whole House. The sponsors then organized a discharge petition to bring the bill before the entire chamber by obtaining 218 signatures, enough to constitute a majority of the House. It is the first successful discharge from a committee in over seven years.

However, the House is unlikely to take action on this bill immediately. Under Rule XV of the House of Representatives, consideration of discharge petitions can occur only on the second and fourth Monday of every month. Because the chamber generally does not meet on Mondays until later in the session, when the deadlines of the budget process become more immediate, voting on the Shays-Meehan bill may not occur for several months.

According to a recent report in the Washington Post, opponents of campaign finance reform are likely to take two approaches to try to defeat the bill. They could amend the bill so that it differs from the version passed by the Senate and then try to kill the bill in a conference committee. They could also promote weaker legislation, such as that proposed by Representative Robert Ney, to take votes away from the stringent provisions of the Shays-Meehan. (The Center for Responsive Politics has a comparison of current law, the Shays-Meehan bill, and the Ney bill here.) Both strategies are formidable, with ample precedent in the annals of Congress.

Much of the support for the Shays-Meehan bill comes from Democrats, with the left wing of the party providing the backbone. However, in both the House and Senate, the drive for campaign finance reform comes also from moderate Republicans. Both Christopher Shays and John McCain have supported campaign finance reform because the use of corporate and union money in campaigns leads quite easily to political corruption. Even though they are Republicans, the party favored by many industries, they support reform because it levels the political playing field.

The bipartisanship needed for campaign finance reform does not require unanimity. Many Republicans in Washington take a strange view of free speech. They argue that political advertisements are a form of speech, so the law should no more to political contributions than it would to speech. These libertarian Republicans are the best friends of left-leaning Democrats on some issues, such as excesses of the executive branch, rights of accused criminals. (The best examples lately have been Ron Paul, Dan Burton, and Robert Barr.) But they make lousy allies when the issue is cleaning up elections. Fortunately, they do not have to be the only Republican allies of Democrats in Congress.

Over the past several years, a rallying cry for many conservatives has been that of term limits. Many states now limit the number of terms for both their state legislators and their governors. Attempts to extend term limits to federal legislators have been less successful. Any state law restricting the number of terms for a legislator would be unconstitutional, because provisions in the federal Constitution about legislative elections make no provision for limits.

The arguments for term limits have some merit. For many years, incumbent federal legislators have had huge advantages when running for re-election. Many face only token opposition. Sitting legislators have a much easier time raising money than their opponents do: very few incumbents are outspent during an election cycle. Proponents of term limits seek to stop those advantages by limiting the number of election cycles. Term limits could remove legislators from office before they become corrupt.

But term limits have a number of serious problems. First, limiting the number of terms for legislators ensures that most lobbyists will have more experience about lawmaking that the lawmakers will themselves. Second, limiting a particular legislator's tenure may be good in theory, but poor in practice. Some legislators require several terms to become leaders or statesmen. Third, term limits do not address the money behind the corruption in politics, just the conduits for that money. Fourth, as many conservatives have found, simply imposing term limits on liberal legislators does not guarantee that conservatives will win those seats, or vice versa.

Where term limits goes wrong, campaign finance reform goes right. Instead of artificially limiting the numbers of terms for legislators, reform would allow easier challenges to lousy legislators. Incumbents might enjoy an advantage over challengers, but that advantage would depend on the tangibility of their records and on their name recognition. Challenging an incumbent would become much easier, because reform would abate the flow of unregulated money to the campaigns of incumbents. Reform could make campaigns more about issues and ideology and less about money and donors.

Campaign finance reform has been for several years the goal of good-government liberals. Term limits have been for years the goals of many good-government conservatives. Democrats need all the help that they can get in this fight. Working with supporters of term limits makes sense, because they are the most likely Republicans to embrace reform. In their case, they will view campaign finance reform as a way to have more competitive elections indirectly impose term limits. But the side effects that these Republicans want should not deter Democrats. Cleaner campaigns and cleaner politics are worth it.

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