A real vote in the House

Posted: Monday, July 16, 2001

The following editorial appeared in Sunday's Washington Post:

There was a moment in the House last week when the parties seemed close to agreement, not on campaign finance reform itself, but on the terms for debating it. Speaker Hastert and Minority Leader Gephardt should try to reconstruct that moment. Long term, it is in the interests of both men to do so. The issue will not go away; it needs to be confronted. It does the House no good to be perceived as having ducked, nor either party. The question is hardly trivial: How much power should interest groups with large amounts of money be allowed to wield in national politics? The country is owed a vote on that directly - not on a parliamentary device.

The unreached agreement seems fairly simple in retrospect. Mr. Hastert would do no more than let the reformers write their own bill - fine-tune and present it the way they wanted. No requirement that each adjustment they sought to make in the final days be voted on separately, as Republicans had earlier insisted in hopes of defeating some of the changes and possibly thereby costing the reformers votes. The reformers would agree in turn to let the Republican leadership likewise try to maximize support by presenting its alternative bill as it wanted. And then they'd see which side had a majority. Not exactly rocket science, you would think.

But the Democrats hesitated just long enough when offered the deal for the Republican caucus to meet and decide in effect to abandon the speaker's proposed concessions in favor of a harder line. Why not?, they asked themselves. Since they didn't like the bill anyway, they would let its own supporters be the ones to block its consideration on procedural grounds - and the deal fell through.

Mr. Hastert is now in precisely the kind of position that, on ascending to the speakership, he said he did not want to occupy. He suggested that he would be a speaker who let the narrowly divided House work its will. Instead he is now accused of having allowed a procedural roadblock to be put in the path of a major bill, then having pulled the bill when a majority insisted the roadblock be withdrawn. That's not entirely fair. Plenty of others on both sides contributed to the fiasco last week. But the speaker is the one who has the responsibility, and in theory the power, to work such things out - to see that major legislation reaches the floor and is fairly considered. Mr. Hastert now faces a kind of battle - perhaps a so-called discharge petition - of a sort that he has lost on this very issue in the past.

Mr. Gephardt and the Democrats have their own share of public cynicism to overcome. The Democrats, while expressing support for campaign finance reform, have themselves been party to killing it when it had a chance of passage in the past. Some did so again the other day. The procedural issue for some Democrats was a convenient way to deflect a bill they much preferred to kill, but without their fingerprints on the weapon. Mr. Gephardt's own battle in behalf of the bill was genuine. But the Democrats as a party can't afford to let this issue die with last week's vote - and expect to be convincing on the subject.

There ought to be a vote on the merits - not an oblique one on a procedural or other secondary issue. It ought to happen soon, not in the fall or next year. The House has the time; it won't take more than a day. The speaker and Mr. Gephardt have the power to make it happen, if they will. The will is the question.

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