Not a normal vote

Posted: Monday, July 23, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:

House supporters of campaign finance reform have begun anew the laborious process of pressing for an unobstructed up-or-down vote on their bill. They have asked Speaker Dennis Hastert to schedule such a vote but, assuming he will not, also have drafted a so-called discharge petition to force him to do so. They need a majority of the House - 218 members - to sign the petition for it to take effect. If members honor their own past votes, the signatures should not be hard to collect.

The House was supposed to debate the bill two weeks ago, but the attempt foundered. Supporters wanted to make some last-minute changes to pick up votes. The leadership said they could bring up the changes but singly rather than in a bloc. They thought that would weaken their chances not just to make all the changes but to pass the bill; they thus opposed, and managed to defeat, the resolution setting the terms for the bill's debate, and the bill itself never made it to the floor.

Mr. Hastert and Co. say the procedural fight was a pretext, that the Democratic leadership and maverick Republicans supporting the bill had begun to fear at the end that they lacked the votes to pass it and used the procedural question as a dodge. They contend that many Democrats were as pleased as most Republicans to see the bill go down, but didn't want to vote no on the merits. Here they were able to beat it by casting a virtuous vote in favor of supposed fairness and beating up on Republicans instead. What could be better than that?

The discharge petition offers a test of whether that's true. All but one Democrat voted against the proposed terms of debate two weeks ago. The petition would give them their way on that issue. They have no basis not to sign it - unless of course the Republican leaders are right, and they were using the procedural vote as a pretext.

The Democrats were joined by 19 Republicans, who were already under great pressure to vote with their party. The pressure now will be greater, but that only sharpens the test of what matters most to these good defectors. Is it party or principle?

This is not a normal vote. This is a bill about a question that transcends most others: How much influence should people and interest groups with money be allowed to have over not just elections, but the legislative and other policy results to which elections lead? The bill would outlaw the soft-money system that is the worst abuse of current law - that by itself let a half-billion dollars in supposedly forbidden funds into the last election. Are the Democrats and Republicans for or against the potential corruption of the political system that that kind of money represents? That's what the discharge petition will tell you.



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