Shays' rebellion takes the House

One determined Republican overcomes his own leadership's opposition to pass a bipartisan campaign finance reform bill -- again.


Jake Tapper
September 15, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

After months of hand-wringing, maneuvering and gutter-sniping, the House of Representatives finally debated and passed the campaign finance reform bill offered by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass., late Tuesday night.

"I think people are finally beginning to realize that if you want to cut off these abuses ... you've got to cut off soft money and call 'sham issue ads' what they are: campaign ads," Shays said in an interview with Salon News immediately after his victory. "People who are focused on this realize that these unlimited sums of money from corporations and unions are polluting our political system."

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The controversial bill would ban the campaign finance loophole known as soft-money contributions; classify "sham issue ads" as campaign ads, thus requiring legal, "hard" dollars; and improve Federal Election Commission disclosure and enforcement, among other things.

(Soft-money contributions are donations to political parties, rather than individual candidates, and there is no limit on them. "Sham issue ads" are ads attacking a politician that purportedly
address issues rather than supporting a campaign, but in practice clearly advocate one candidate over another. Since they aren't paid for by the campaign, the ads are not subject to contribution limits or disclosure requirements.)

This year's debate was anti-climactic, according to GOP insiders. One leadership aide noted that last year, debate over the bill was much more vigorous, as members worried about how the final vote would go and how the result might affect their reelection chances.

The last time around, the GOP leadership, under then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, put up a host of roadblocks for the would-be reformers. "We had all those wacky rules," the aide recalled. "All sorts of hoops and crazy things Shays-Meehan had to jump through, all those non-germane amendments." Debate grew testy.

By contrast, "This year everybody was already locked in," the aide said. "Outside of think tanks and editorial boards, where they might think otherwise, it's pretty boring up here tonight. It's a real snoozer. You got a handful of guys out there talking themselves silly, but attendance on the floor is pretty sparse."

While agreeing that Wednesday's debate "was more low-key" than last year's battle, Shays maintains that "there was a very real effort to kill it. But the people who voted for it last year held firm and stood their ground."

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The debate over the bill -- led by the soft-spoken Shays, the professorial Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Calif., and the fiery Zach Wamp, R-Tenn. -- lasted almost until midnight. The three reformer Republicans were joined by Democrat Meehan -- whose job was considerably easier than that of his GOP counterparts, because House Democrats marched in lockstep in favor of the bill. (Although it could be fairly observed, of course, that House Democrats had at least half a century to act on the issue and didn't really seem to care about changing the system -- until they lost control of the House in '94.)

The Shays-Meehan team faced some powerful opposition, led by Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., and House Administration Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif.

Opponents cast the Shays-Meehan bill as a strike against the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. "It continues to amaze me that members of Congress, newspapers and 'senior scholars' continue to advocate limiting free speech and prohibiting citizens from criticizing government officials in the name of 'campaign reform,'" DeLay said on the floor of the House. "This is the mother of all government regulation and control over the political process. The Shays-Meehan bill will erect a Byzantine set of laws and over 275 new government regulations that will gag citizens' speech."

Additionally, Shays' opponents continually cited the Buckley vs. Valeo Supreme Court decision, in which the court ruled that "the First Amendment denies government the power to determine that spending to promote one's political views is wasteful, excessive or unwise."

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Realizing that that decision was an issue, Shays' team relied on Campbell, a Stanford University constitutional law professor and resident expert, who assured them that their bill would hold up to judicial review.

In the end, Tuesday's debate gave a temporary sense of closure to Shays, who has been slaving away at this seemingly Sisyphean task all year, at times possibly risking his job in the process.

Debate on the measure began shortly after lunchtime on Tuesday -- a sunny, breezy day that must have tempted dozens of lawmakers to leave the stuffy, stodgy confines of the House floor (although, truth be told, plenty of members probably would have preferred being swept up in Hurricane Floyd's torrential rains to being stuck inside, debating how to change the very campaign system that got them there).

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Shays and his team didn't seem even remotely beckoned by the outdoor splendor, however, as they fought off all the last-minute attempts to undermine their bill. Though the House leadership was finally allowing a vote on the measure, it also was allowing votes on 10 amendments and three substitute bills. The Shays team regarded many of the proposed amendments as so-called "poison pills" that would split the coalition supporting the bill and effectively kill it.

"We didn't know what would happen on the amendments," Shays said. "We were apprehensive."

The first two were offered by Rep. Edward Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican who tried to triple the individual contribution limit, from $1,000 to $3,000, and the aggregate contribution limit, from the current $25,000 to $75,000. Plenty of Shays-Meehan supporters had no problem with increasing such limits, which were established during the post-Watergate campaign finance reform era and have yet to be adjusted.

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But adding such provisions to the bill would have peeled away Democrat support and split the Shays-Meehan coalition. In the end, both of Whitfield's amendments were defeated by overwhelming margins of roughly 3-to-1.

Shays was especially nervous about the next amendment, offered by Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., which targeted the "sham ad" provision of his bill. Doolittle's amendment would have removed print and Internet advertisements that mention a candidate's vote from categorization as election ads.

When Doolittle offered this amendment in the last Congress, it nearly passed, with 201 yeas to 219 nays. The Shays team got a better spread this year; when Doolittle's legislation was defeated, 129-189, they all breathed a little easier.

The next amendment, offered by Nebraska Republican Doug Bereuter, would outlaw campaign contributions from anyone who is not a U.S. citizen, including legal permanent residents and "citizens in training."

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Some supporters of Shays-Meehan suspected that the Bereuter provision would be found to be unconstitutional. They therefore suspected that it could work as a judicial "poison pill" -- especially if passed in tandem with an amendment from Illinois Republican Thomas Ewing, whose amendment would have negated Shays-Meehan in its entirety if any portion of the bill were to be struck down by the Supreme Court.

Bereuter's amendment passed last year and was attached to the Shays-Meehan bill. It passed this year as well.

But Ewing's amendment was slapped down, 259-167.

Delegate Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, a Democrat who represents American Samoa, emerged to clarify that Bereuter's amendment did not deny the right of U.S. nationals -- citizens of American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands -- to make campaign contributions. Faleomavaega's clarification was quickly adopted on a voice vote.

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Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., had been scheduled to present an amendment requiring candidates to raise at least 50 percent of their contributions from within their home state. But Hurricane Floyd necessitated Shaw's attentions elsewhere, and he had California Republican Ken Calvert present the legislation for him.

"When you have to primarily rely on money from outside your home state, you no longer need to listen to the needs and concerns of your own constituents," said Calvert.

"That's an amendment I could support," Shays said
afterward. "I get 96-plus percent of my money from in-state. But urban members don't get 50 percent of their contributions from within state," so again, the amendment would have split the Shays-Meehan coalition.

In the end, members of the House again refused to swallow the poison pill; Calvert's amendment was defeated, 248-179.

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The lawmakers did the same with a DeLay provision that would have
exempted Internet campaign activities
from most election guidelines. DeLay's Internet amendment died, 268-160.

Shays said he was "surprised" at the pulverizing DeLay's amendment received. "The numbers of votes defeating the amendments were larger than I anticipated," he said. "They weren't even close."

The one somewhat controversial amendment to pass, in fact, was an entirely irrelevant one from New York freshman Republican John Sweeney, who -- with a certain first lady in mind -- offered legislation to require non-federal office holders who use federal government transportation for campaign activities to reimburse the government for the full cost.

"It's a mean-spirited, petty, politically partisan charged amendment that has nothing to do" with campaign finance reform, pointed out the somewhat daffy Upper East Side Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.

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That may be, but it passed, 261-167. Sorry, Hillary.

Having cleared the amendment hurdles, the Shays-Meehan bill was next threatened by three proposed substitute bills.

First came Doolittle's "Full Disclosure Act," an ideologically pure piece of libertarianism that would have eliminated all limits on campaign contributions while simultaneously requiring full and immediate disclosure.

Doolittle pointed out that former presidential candidate "Clean" Gene McCarthy was only able to scare Lyndon Johnson away from running for reelection in 1968 by raising $1 million from only 10 or so contributors -- which he would never have been able to accomplish under the current congressional campaign finance laws. Doolittle said that targeting soft money was like a doctor addressing a symptom instead of the disease. We need a whole new set of laws, he argued, a completely new campaign finance system.

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"We may be there someday," Rep. Brian Bilbray, a fellow California Republican, reassured his colleague. "But we have Shays-Meehan in front of us ... Before we try to scrap the old system and move on to a new one, let's try to fix the old system." Doolittle's substitute was demolished, 306-117, with almost 100 of his fellow Republicans opposing it.

Folksy Arkansas Republican Rep. Asa Hutchinson then took center stage with his proposed substitute, born from the efforts of his work with three fellow Class of '96 Republicans: class president Kenny Hulshof of Missouri, Kevin Brady of Texas and Rick Hill of Montana.

The Hutchinson alternative, which they called the "Campaign Integrity Act," was built and sold from a foundation of pragmatics.
Hutchinson said that he and his fellow crafters abided by three principles: avoiding the extremes of the issue, abiding by the Constitution and, most importantly, being realistic about what could pass not only the House but the Senate. Shays-Meehan passed the House last year, but was basically filibustered to death in the Senate.

"You cannot get a better product," Hutchinson implored his colleagues.

"We're little like the girl next door," seconded Brady. "When you tire of chasing the prom queen, the Hutchinson substitute is here."

Argued Hulshof, most pointedly, "The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results." He called Shays-Meehan an "act of futility."

But pragmatism was a tough sell on a night when lofty ideals were in the air. While Hutchinson's bill would have banned federal soft money, it wouldn't have touched soft money at the state level; and while it would have indexed contribution limits to the rate of inflation and strengthened the rules for disclosing such information to the public, it wouldn't have touched "sham issue ads." The Hutchinson bill was shot down, 327-99.

Hutchinson did a good job of presenting his bill as the common-sense alternative, Shays conceded, but in the end, "It had gigantic loopholes."

Thomas, the House administration chairman, then provided his reformist measures, all of which seemed legit. Thomas' bill would have made sweeping FEC reforms, including initiating election-year -- rather than calendar-year -- filing cycles; requiring suspicious contributions to be placed in a special FEC account; and prohibiting foreign nationals from contributing soft money (the latter two of which Shays-Meehan would accomplish as well).

But though many Shays-Meehan supporters voiced support for Thomas' proposals, they also argued that none of them amounted to a sum total that was enough to replace the reform bill they were supporting. Thomas' substitute was mashed, 256-173.

And then, finally, at 11: 40 p.m., came the anticlimax. After months and months of marinating in his angst, Shays was finally able to finally get a vote on his bill.

And it passed, 252-177.

"It's pretty stunning to have maintained this incredible amount of bipartisan support," Shays said in a phone interview right after the win. "And to have done it in the first year of the session rather than in the second! It's very, very gratifying."

He sounded jubilant, and completely drained.

Of course, now a new battle begins in the Senate -- the elephant's graveyard of House reform bills.

But the optimistic Shays says that it won't be so easy for the Senate to kill campaign finance reform this time around.

"Last time, it was right before the '98 election. What's different now is they have a whole year until the next election, so they'll have to bury it for a whole year."

Shays also points out that last year's campaign finance reform bill -- sponsored then, as now, by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis. -- was voted on the day after the Starr Report came out. "It was a different environment," Shays says.


Jake Tapper

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

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