For years, the public has been getting a legislative runaround on campaign finance reform while big contributors have gained greater and more brazen control over legislation. Now that a minimal measure to outlaw soft money seems on the way to long-overdue enactment, a small die-hard coterie is plotting one last ruse to trip it up.
Disappointed by Senate passage of the soft-money ban, and surprised by this week's 5-4 Supreme Court ruling reaffirming the constitutional right of Congress to limit or outlaw gifts funneled through political parties, opponents of reform have fallen back and regrouped.
House Republican leaders are maneuvering stealthily and with deadly purpose to sidetrack the McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill, scheduled for debate in the House in July. If their newest ploy should succeed, it would make this the third consecutive Congress in which the popular and much-needed reform, although supported by solid majorities in both houses, has fallen victim to a parliamentary shell game.
The back-room tactic is different this time, but the goal is identical: kill the bill without appearing to do so. In 1998 and again in 1999, the House passed Shays-Meehan (the House equivalent of McCain-Feingold) by impressive bipartisan margins. But the GOP leadership had the last laugh.
Working quietly in tandem with then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, House leaders deliberately delayed scheduling their vote until so late in the session that Lott could keep it off the Senate calendar under the threat of filibuster.
House members of both parties who privately wanted to keep on taking "soft money" contributions could avoid public criticism by voting, tongue-in-cheek, for the bill, knowing it wouldn't see the light of day on the Senate floor.
Pre-empting any repeat of this cynical tactic, Sen. John McCain this year began demanding an early Senate vote on his oft-snookered measure. A bipartisan group of senators, the issue out in the open, passed it handily. House GOP leaders have stalled their vote for three months, but Democratic and Republican supporters have finally forced their hand, backed by growing public disillusionment with the delaying tactics. A vote has been promised during July.
Now Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Whip Tom DeLay have a new stratagem: Let the matter come up for a vote, but adopt an amended version so as to require a House-Senate conference.
Ohio Republican Bob Ney is drafting the diversionary language. If the bill's opponents can attach at least one amendment, Hastert may quietly appoint House conferees committed to opposing any conference agreement and stalling the bill to death behind closed doors.
The extremes to which campaign reform opponents will go to defeat any meaningful change reveal sadly what a sledgehammer private lobbies hold over the heads of lawmakers these days.
Large campaign contributions are like addictive narcotics. They create a sort of helpless dependency on the part of lawmakers seeking re-election. With rapidly escalating campaign costs, an underfunded incumbent is at the mercy of contributors. When their representatives come seeking preferential legislative treatment, they usually get access.
Members of both parties have become sickeningly beholden to the men with the money. In 98 percent of all contested political races during 2000, the candidate who raised the bigger war chest won the race.
A generation ago, reeling from the shock of the Watergate scandals, Congress in 1974 enacted the century's most genuine effort to control runaway election-time spending, including strict limits on the size of individual contributions and enforceable public reporting requirements. Campaign gifts from corporations and unions were banned.
With the best intentions but too little foresight, the authors allowed civic and charitable gifts to political parties for voter registration and get-out-the vote efforts. A trickle became a flood.
Last year, $500 million in candidate-targeted money gushed through this loophole from corporations, unions and wealthy special-interest sources in amounts otherwise legally outlawed. It's this loophole that McCain-Feingold would close.
Looking at these figures, we might ask ourselves: Who really picks our nation's leaders today? Is it the people? Or the contributors?
The McCain-Feingold bill isn't a cure-all. But it's a modest beginning on things that must be done if ours is truly again to be a government of, by and for the people. Maybe that's something worth thinking about on Independence Day.
Jim Wright is a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. (c) 2001, Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.