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Armageddon for the Republicans
Tim Francis-Wright

Earlier this month, House Speaker Dennis Hastert declared to a number of his colleagues that the debate on campaign finance was a "life-or-death issue" and "Armageddon" for the Republican party. His rhetoric was just one aspect of a longstanding campaign against reform by the Republican leadership. The strength of its opposition speaks volumes about the intellectual vacuity of the Republican party. It also provides a guiding light to Democrats, if they care to look.

The virtually identical campaign finance bills that have passed the House and Senate are meaningful but hardly revolutionary. They cut off most unregulated donations to national parties, but they allow substantial donations to state parties. Neither the Shays-Meehan bill in the House nor the McCain-Feingold bill in the Senate mandates public financing of House or Senate elections. Both allow individuals to give more money than they can now to individual candidates and to national parties. Dennis Hastert might think of Christopher Shays, Marty Meehan, John McCain, and Russ Feingold as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but those horsemen are riding Shetland ponies.

The reason that the Republican leadership is so worried about campaign finance reform is that the Republican party has been successful under the current regime. For years, higher-income voters have voted disproportionately for Republican candidates for president and both branches of Congress. The Republican party relies on large donations from corporations and their executives for much of its campaign budgets. Changing the rules, even slightly, might reduce the advantages that Republicans have in campaigns.

For years, the Republican party relied on the rules of the Senate to keep any sort of meaningful campaign finance reform from becoming law. In the Senate, at least 60 of the 100 members must vote to end debate on controversial legislation. During each of the two past Congresses, the House had passed versions of the Shays-Meehan bill, only to have the legislation fall victim to a Senate filibuster.

Proponents of campaign finance reform took a different tack in 2001. Senators McCain and Feingold convinced the Senate to act before the House. Not only did they avoid a filibuster, but they passed the legislation by 18 votes, 59 for to 41 against. The Republican party now faced a dilemma. President Bush did not want to veto a campaign finance reform bill. So, having failed to stop the bill in the Senate, the Republicans needed to stop it in the House.

The Republicans tried a number of tactics, tactics born of desperation. First, Republican Robert Ney of Ohio introduced a competing bill that would limit soft-money donations, but just barely. It would limit donations to the national parties to $75,000 per donor per year, and put no limits on soft-money donations to state parties. Second, the Republicans tried to control the debate on campaign-finance reform. In July, the Rules Committee refused a request by Shays and Meehan to make one manager's amendment that would make a number of minor changes to the bill. Instead, the rules of debate would split that amendment into thirteen parts and greatly hamper the chances of keeping a majority coalition intact behind the bill. The Democrats and a few rump Republicans then outmanuevered the Republicans. They defeated the proposed rule. Then, when the Republicans refused to compromise on a new rule, they got 218 signatures on a discharge petition to bring the bill our of the Rules Committee and onto the floor of the House.

Third, once the discharge petition succeeded, the Republicans unrolled the rest of their parliamentary tricks. One mode of attack was simply to persuade Republicans to toe the party line. But some Republicans were committed to reform nonetheless. Others had voted for campaign finance reform in previous years, when it was dead on arrival in the Senate and a yes vote on the House was just for show. Voting against reform when it mattered might come across as hypocritical. Another mode of attack was to introduce "killer amendments," those that looked good on paper but whose purpose was to scuttle the legislation. One example was a provision to make the reform retroactive to last week even though it would not become law until the president signed it. Yet another mode of attack was more insidious still. If the House could make the bill different enough from the Senate version, then the bill would go to a conference committee, from which it might never emerge.

All these tactics failed. Forty-one Republicans voted for the Shays-Meehan bill, along with the vast majority of Democrats. The Enron scandal helped the cause of reform, by providing an example of what can happen when a corporation gets too much influence. The Ney bill received only tepid support, even from Republicans. Very few Republican amendments passed in the House, so the Senate proponents of the bill continued with their plan to introduce and pass an identical bill to the House bill. The saga of this bill is not yet over, because Senator Mitch McConnell plans to mount a filibuster to prevent a final vote. Senators McCain and Feingold need to muster 60 votes to cut off debate and put an end to the parliamentary maneuvering.

The Republicans in Congress do not live in a sealed vacuum. They listen closely to what George Bush, the leader of their party, wants them to do. Despite his public lukewarm support for campaign finance reform (he suggested that he would not veto a reform bill), President Bush is certainly behind everything that the Republican leadership does. As the New York Times reported last week, the White House gave its full, albeit covert, support to the House Republicans to kill or maim the legislation by any means necessary. President Bush could have called off Mitch McConnell, or Dennis Hastert, or Dick Armey, or Robert Ney, and called them off quickly and firmly. Instead, he let them delay, obfuscate, and confound, the forces of reform for well over a year.

By fighting so hard against some modest changes to the campaign finance system, the Republicans have essentially announced that they cannot win a fair fight. Their fight to preserve unregulated donations to the national parties means that they fear campaigns in which the Republican National Committee cannot funnel millions of dollars into key states; in which television advertisements are not the true measure of a campaign's merit; or in which recruiting and organizing new voters are vital to victory. The small but significant number of Republicans who voted for campaign finance believe that their party could win a fair fight with the Democrats. Their leaders, however, are scared to death of that prospect.

The Democrats must seize the opportunity that the Republicans have given them. The Republicans have become so wedded to corporate lucre that their leadership was willing to do almost anything to save the marriage. Democrats need to remind voters of a number of facts. The Republican leadership saw the influence that Enron bought and thought nothing was wrong. The Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the White House tried to kill even modest campaign finance reform. The Republicans are those who are afraid of a fair fight.

Democrats should seek out those who believed Ralph Nader's line that there was no difference between the two political parties. Of course, they need to continue to prove that the parties are different, but the Republicans sometimes make it easy.

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