Bushed! The Texas two-step

While the president has vowed to sign a tough campaign finance reform bill if it gets to his desk, the White House is working behind the scenes to kill it.

By Joan Walsh
Published February 13, 2002 9:00AM (EST)

If there's a silver lining to the Enron scandal, it's the way it revived once-moribund campaign finance reform legislation in Congress. But many Republicans seem to be running scared. Hours after the tough Shays-Meehan reform bill was freed from its congressional dungeon thanks to post-Enron political hardball by 218 House members, all but 20 of them Democrats, the GOP leadership began to grope for ways to defeat it. "You guys need to realize this is a life-or-death issue for our party," Speaker Dennis Hastert told House Republicans in a closed-door meeting last week.

Apparently the Bush administration heard Hastert. According to Tuesday's New York Times, unnamed presidential "advisers" admit they're working with the Republican National Committee to help the House GOP shoot down Shays-Meehan -- the bill backed by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass. -- while trying to keep the president's fingerprints off the gun. This White House maneuver reflects the same tin-eared political arrogance that gave us the "axis of evil" rhetoric in the State of the Union address -- Bush's bid to widen the war on terror that instead inflamed many of his international and domestic allies -- and it's likely to be equally unsuccessful. Shays-Meehan may fail when the House votes this week, which may be as early as Wednesday. But if it does, there will be no way for Bush to evade the blame.

In an effort to save some face Tuesday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters "the president is not lobbying," despite what White House sources told the Times.

But even without those remarkable Bush "advisers" leaking their strategy to the Times, the Republican National Committee's campaign to kill Shays-Meehan would be easily traceable back to the White House. RNC chair Marc Racicot is a close friend and advisor to Bush: the trusted front man he sent to Florida during the recount debacle, and reportedly his first choice for attorney general until anger on the Christian right (Racicot is pro-choice) forced Bush to choose John Ashcroft. Last year Racicot took the RNC reins from its former head, Jim Gilmore, in a bloodless Bush-backed coup.

Try as Fleischer might, there's no way to distance the president from Racicot's crusade against Shays-Meehan. Even the language of Racicot's letter to wavering Republicans implied he's working on the president's behalf: "As you consider each amendment [to campaign finance legislation] I recommend that you ask yourself whether what is being proposed reflects President Bush's principles," he wrote.

That brings up the politically inconvenient fact that Bush opposed Shays-Meehan last time around. For those who can't remember last year's debate, Shays-Meehan would ban the unregulated soft-money donations that corporations, unions and individuals make to political parties, and prohibit the broadcasting of so-called "issue ads" -- which are frequently hit pieces funded by groups with ties to another candidate -- within 60 days of an election or 30 days of a primary. The alternative backed by most Republicans, which was sponsored by Reps. Robert Ney, R-Ohio and Albert Wynn, D-Md., limits but does not ban soft money contributions from individuals.

Bush is well known to favor something closer to Ney-Wynn than Shays-Meehan, but in the wake of the Enron scandal, he's understandably reluctant to sound soft on soft money (Enron gave $1.7 million of it in the last election, most of it to Republicans.)

It's easy to understand, for instance, why Bush might be embarrassed if the public knew he backed what's become known as the "Kenny Boy exception" to tough reform: allowing wealthy individuals to make large donations to candidates and political action committees, while banning such contributions by unions and businesses. So a Bush-designed campaign finance reform bill might have banned Enron's soft-money largesse -- definitely a step in the right direction -- but would have allowed company founder Ken Lay (nicknamed "Kenny Boy" by the president in happier days) to donate his millions, disproportionately to Bush and the GOP.

Bush can't have it both ways, publicly claiming to back tough campaign finance reform while his advisors privately try to scuttle it, but you can't blame him for trying. Polls show renewed voter interest in and support for campaign finance reform in the wake of the Enron debacle.

Debate on Shays-Meehan began Tuesday, and its fate is still unclear. A version of the bill passed the House in 1998 and 1999, but it was easy for members to vote with the angels those years, because it was certain to fail in the Senate. A soft-money ban passed the House 252 to 177 in 1999, and 226 members who voted for it still hold their seats.

But that doesn't mean they'll vote for it now. After Shays-Meehan got new political life last year when the Senate passed a tough companion version, sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., it suddenly stalled in the House, and the GOP leadership was able to scuttle it. Democrats were not blameless in the stalling of Shays-Meehan last year. As the bill gathered steam, some Congressional Black Caucus members who once supported it peeled off, arguing it would hurt black voters by curtailing the funding of get out the vote drives aimed at African Americans.

Meanwhile, the 33 House Republicans who voted for the bill before it passed the Senate are being targeted by the RNC, which believes, perhaps correctly, that they could be cajoled to oppose Shays-Meehan now that it has a strong chance of passing.

Late Tuesday, Shays-Meehan supporters accepted an amendment that would keep the bill from taking effect until after the 2002 election -- the Senate version of the bill would take effect in 30 days -- to give wary members time to come to terms with (or figure out ways to skirt?) the new rules. Clearly people in both parties fear Shays-Meehan -- and that's how it should be.

I wish those Congressional Black Caucus members hadn't sold out Shays-Meehan last year, but it would be silly to suggest that they deserve as much blame for the bill's uncertain future as the White House. Imagine what would have happened last month if the wildly popular Bush, bolstered by his success prosecuting the war on terror but sobered and saddened by the Enron scandal, had attacked the evils of corporate campaign finance corruption in his State of the Union address, instead of that nonexistent "axis of evil," and backed a tough reform bill. Campaign finance reform would have passed Congress faster than the Taliban fled Afghanistan.

Instead, Bush got through that speech without mentioning Enron or campaign finance reform. It was a cowardly performance. If the Sept. 11 attacks brought out the best in Bush, the Enron debacle has brought out the worst. Last month the same president renowned for his loyalty pretended to barely know the Texas buddy he used to call "Kenny Boy," claiming that Lay, his main political patron, was actually a supporter of the woman he defeated to become Texas governor, Ann Richards.

Now, the very same day that Lay had to take the Fifth before Congress, Bush let Ari Fleischer tell the media he isn't fighting Shays-Meehan, while his "advisers" brag to the New York Times about their strategy to defeat it.

The Times story featured a Bush advisor admitting the RNC move "had the strong support of Karl Rove, the president's chief political advisor," but noted that Rove's support probably wasn't necessary to kick the RNC into gear. "I'm not sure Karl's had to encourage them much," the Bush advisor said. "At the RNC, they're like drug addicts. The party thinks it would be a great idea to kick the habit, but not right now."

A true leader would tell his party to straighten up and just say no. It's not too late for Bush to stand up to his arrogant, self-serving "advisers" and get behind Shays-Meehan. But there's no evidence lately that he has the courage to do so.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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