Shays' rebellion

The maverick congressman may buck GOP leadership and push for a vote on campaign finance reform.

Published May 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

As a liberal Republican, Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut is used to
the vulnerabilities of the high wire. But his past votes in favor of abortion rights and against impeachment were nothing compared to the precipitous tightrope he's trying to walk on campaign finance reform. Now, the eyes of his House colleagues are upon him, gazing up and
wondering if he'll fall. Some of them are hoping he will.

In the next few days, Shays must decide whether or not he'll try to force a floor vote on the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 1999, which he co-wrote with Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., or if he'll defer to the wishes of his leadership and wait until September, all but guaranteeing that his bill will die.

While they would surely bask in the media glow and publicly bemoan the demise of campaign finance reform at the hands of Republicans, the death of Shays' bill is probably fine with most Democrats. In 1994, a similar measure died in conference committee, killed by then Democratic Speaker Tom Foley and Democratic Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell. Not to mention the fact that the money-raising of President Clinton, Vice President Gore, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, et al. hardly comports with the hard-core purity of the good-government types over at Common Cause.

"It's certainly interesting to hear Gephardt talk about campaign finance reform one day and then the next go to Las Vegas to get $250,000 from gambling interests," says John Feehery, press secretary for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. "There's a bit of hypocrisy on that side."

Just like the much-maligned soft money Shays' bill would eliminate, when it comes to hypocrisy, there is more than enough to go around. You can start with Clinton, who championed the issue in his '92 campaign but has done little else since then. "We have a 'love-hate relationship' " with the Clinton administration, says Common Cause vice president and legislative director Meredith McGehee. "Mostly a 'hate.'"

But the legislative maneuvering necessary to bring the bill up for a vote would essentially be seen as a middle finger from Shays in the face of the House leaders who schedule the votes. House Democrats have been making political hay out of the issue since April 13, when they began garnering signatures on a petition to force the vote, thus painting the GOP as anti-reform. Until now, Shays and every other Republican in the House had held off from signing the petition, thus ensuring that the number of signatures would never reach the 218 John Hancocks required to force a bill onto the floor for a vote.

Supporters of Shays' bill fear that waiting until September will end up meaning that the House -- which is normally consumed with appropriations bills immediately before the official beginning of the new fiscal year on October 1 -- would shelve the bill.

Another possible scenario if the bill were to be debated in September has the House passing Shays' bill (a distinct possibility as it passed in August 1998, by a vote of 252-179) and the Senate refusing to even consider it, claiming that it doesn't have enough time to deal with the issue appropriately. Either way, supporters argue that a delay means death, which is fine for many Republicans.

"It was our plan from the beginning to have the House act first," says Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who has been leading the fight for campaign finance reform on the Senate side, along with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "That was for obvious reasons. The House actually passed campaign finance reform last year, while we never got around to it." Feingold said waiting until September is not an option. "If the speaker puts it off until September, we'll probably move well before that" in the Senate, he said.

The Republican leadership made it clear that any Republican cooperating with those pushing for an early vote on this issue wasn't going to endear himself to his conference. Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, circulated a letter to his GOP minions that forcing a floor vote "undermines
the authority of the speaker and turns the floor of the House over to the minority."

On May 5, 27 Republicans met with Hastert to urge that he allow a vote on the issue sooner rather than later. Shays, a lightning rod for conservative Republicans, has even backed off from the issue, staying mum in the press and letting moderate Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J., and
conservative Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., take the lead on the issue.

They remained hopeful that Hastert would change his mind, especially when they heard House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, make rumblings about a campaign finance reform vote before the July 4 recess.

But in an interview with the Associated Press released Tuesday night, Hastert rendered
his final verdict before he had spoken directly with Shays. As of Wednesday, Shays and his staff were still trying to assess whether Hastert's message-in-a-wire-story was cunning or
clumsiness. Was he daring Republican moderates to sign the petition? Or is he still just new to the job?

Shays is reportedly upset, tortured with feelings of betrayal. He sincerely believes in his bill's goals: Banning soft money, regulating "issue" ads as campaign ads, and improving Federal Election Commission disclosure and enforcement. But the seven-term veteran also knows that his party only has so much patience for his maverick ways. And with conservative author/pundit Ann Coulter flirting with the idea of challenging him in the 2000 primary, he may soon need his party's help.

"Shays isn't perceived as a team player," says one GOP leadership source. "He feels he must reform the system no matter the destruction and damage to the party. He thinks he's purer than pure. But we're hopeful that he cares enough about the majority so he'll work in a positive matter rather than a destructive one."

But Feingold remains optimistic that Shays will stand up to Republican threats. "What do they expect him to do after he poured his heart and soul into that bill? Is he supposed to let the bill die?"

Somewhere out in Texas, at this very minute, an 89-year-old woman is marching across the continent in the name of campaign finance reform. Granny D, as the octogenarian is known, cites banning soft money as her trek's raison d'etre -- but she might as well be advocating the colonization of Neptune.

Shays knows the futility of this woman's mission all too well.

Both Granny D and Shays must overcome deep-seated fears by Shays' colleagues if their quixotic quests are going to be successful. A number of Republicans, for instance, think that Shays-Meehan would end up hurting Republican candidates more than Democrats. They say that interest groups frequently allied with the Democratic Party -- including environmental organizations, trial lawyers and unions -- wouldn't be affected, while the Republican Party's soft money coffers would be more severely limited.

"Shays-Meehan won't level the playing field," says Rep. Robert Ehrlich, R-Md., a rising star in the GOP leadership. "It will just better allow Democrats to promote the Gephardt agenda."

But if the argument that the minority party's campaign finance reform would
just skew things unfairly in the other direction seems familiar to you, that's because when Democrats controlled the House last, they made the same accusations against Republicans when they proposed banning PACs altogether back in 1993.

Want to end the practice of "bundling," where an advocacy group collects checks from its members and sends them all to a candidate in one big envelope? Well, hold on, because pro-choice women's groups like EMILY's List engage in that practice. How about ensuring that a majority of a
candidate's contributions come from within his or her congressional district? Well, that hurts African-American and Latino candidates, who often run in less affluent areas and depend on the support of their wealthier brethren (not to mention PACs) to win.

The kind of campaign finance reform everyone believes in is the kind that's going to hurt the other guy.

"When I go to talk to groups, I ask them 'Who is for campaign finance reform?' and everyone raises their hand," Ehrlich said. "But then I explain each bill, and all the different issues in each one, and everyone has a different opinion. It's like being for 'small business' or for 'motherhood and apple pie.'"

Common Cause would prefer sweeping reform. "If it hurts somebody, we'd rather try to make sure that it hurts everybody equally," says McGehee. But Shays-Meehan, she says, would at least be a step in the right direction, one that she argues hurts both parties by banning soft money. "Soft money hurts the average American," she says. "There's a direct correlation between the little bits of pork tucked into these bills and money that was given" to the men and women drafting the bills. "These are the things that directly hurt American consumers, the reason for the hike of prices of everything from peanut butter to milk. It's not like this is some disconnect."

So Granny D will walk until the soles of her shoes are gone, and Shays will decide whether he should live to fight another day, and in the end campaign finance reform will probably die one way or another. Fifty-two other Republican congressmen currently in the House voted for Shays-Meehan in August 1998, but few of them seem to be willing to force a floor vote on the measure now. As Shays ponders his decision, he can be forgiven for wondering why he feels so alone.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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