TOPICS > Politics

Open Debate

August 3, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Kwame Holman begins our coverage of campaign finance reform.

KWAME HOLMAN: Tonight’s vote on the Shays-Meehan bill is a critical first step for members of Congress who support sweeping changes to the current system of financing political campaigns.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS, (R) Connecticut: Tonight, members of this House will cast one of the most important votes of their careers in this House, to help restore integrity to our democratic system of government. That’s what this debate is about tonight.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Shays-Meehan bill would ban unregulated soft money contributions to national and state political parties, restrict ads known as “issue advocacy,” which, in effect, endorse or attack candidates, and expands contribution disclosure requirements. Although action on campaign finance reform in the Senate stalled earlier this year, momentum in the House has built slowly, steadily, and without the support of the Republican leadership. Speaker Newt Gingrich, on record as opposed to most reform plans that have come along, nevertheless, kept a promise in March to bring the issue to the floor. However, he limited debate to a handful of Republican-sponsored measures and required a super majority to get them passed. Democrats, almost all of whom support Shays-Meehan, could do nothing except complain.

REP. SAM GEJDENSON, (D) Connecticut: Just in case, by some faint stretch of the imagination, the Republican bill might pass, we have come to the floor with a process where you don’t need 51 percent of the vote to win today, you got to have 2/3 of the votes, because they know they can’t get ’em!

KWAME HOLMAN: Republican supporters of campaign finance reform weren’t pleased either.

REP. ASA HUTCHINSON, (R) Arkansas: I’m deeply disappointed that in the last moments the people’s hope for reform was crushed when majority rule became defeat by design.

KWAME HOLMAN: But within a month campaign finance reform had attracted enough bipartisan support in the House to force a full and open debate. Speaker Gingrich relented.

REP. ZACH WAMP, (R) Tennessee: I find this to be an example of a responsive attitude, of recognizing democracy, doing the right thing, and he needs a lot of credit.

REP. DICK GEPHARDT, Minority Leader: Make no mistake. This was a retreat, not a conversion.

KWAME HOLMAN: Over the past 10 weeks the Republican leadership has not made scheduling debate on campaign finance reform a high priority. Supporters of the Shays-Meehan bill have been relegated to late evening sessions after other legislative business was completed. But during that time they’ve managed to weave methodically through dozens of amendments, some aimed at refining the bill.

REP. MATT SALMON, (R) Arizona: Mr. Speaker, my amendment is very straightforward. It requires the president to make available via the Internet the name of any non-government person who is a person on an aircraft designated as Air Force One or Air Force Two.

SPOKESPERSON: I rise to introduce a non-partisan amendment that-

KWAME HOLMAN: Other amendments that would have fractured the fragile bipartisan support for the bill were defeated.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: The bottom line to Mr. Rohrbacher, he is one of sixteen poison pill amendments that will kill our coalition. On that basis I have to encourage defeat of it.

KWAME HOLMAN: Through it all the Shays-Meehan plan and support for it remained virtually intact. But even if it is approved this evening, Shays-Meehan still can be supplanted by any one of several less comprehensive alternative plans that garner more votes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Margaret Warner takes it from there.

MARGARET WARNER: Now two congressional views on the impending vote, which is due to begin in minutes. Since controversy over Shays-Meehan is centered within the Republican Party, with most Democrats supporting it, we invited two Republicans this evening to debate the issue: Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee is one of the co-sponsors of the Shays-Meehan bill and gave the closing arguments tonight for the Republican side in favor of the bill. Rep. Anne Northup of Kentucky is a member of the Free Speech Coalition Action Group, an alliance of House members opposed to any ban on soft money. Welcome both of you. Congressman Wamp, is the bill going to pass tonight?

REP. ZACH WAMP, (R) Tennessee: Well, Margaret, in the last few days several things have happened that give us little concern going into tonight, but frankly, I think when it’s all said and done, members will have to look themselves in the face and say, do I want to side with the special interest groups, or do I want the people back home to perceive me as one that has sold out in Washington, or do I want to do what’s right for the American people? I think the moment of truth is tonight, and I think when it’s all said and done in just a few minutes, the Shays-Meehan bill will pass with a majority here in the House.

MARGARET WARNER: Congresswoman, do you agree?

REP. ANNE NORTHUP, (R) Kentucky: Well, I think it probably will pass. I think it’s probably mostly because of words that you heard Mr. Wamp just say-things like “sold out,” “corrupt.” The name calling that goes along with the people that sort of self-righteously support this-what it really does is push money out of sight. We tried this in Kentucky, the first governor’s race we’ve had. We’ve had an impaneled grand jury since then, because people that are determined to break the law and not uphold the common good and common interest have better opportunities to do that in a bill like this. It’s very self-serving to call it campaign finance reform. It’s a change. In my opinion, it changes who has the right to speak. Newspapers like mine in Louisville, where we have a very personally interested editor, who grinds against me for personal reasons every day, every single week, you know, he isn’t restricted from speaking. But for those of us that run straight campaigns that absolutely live up to the law, that absolutely vote in the common best interest, as we see it, we’re going to be the ones that are most disadvantaged by this.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Wamp, how do you and how have you responded to criticisms like that?

REP. ZACH WAMP: Well, it’s interesting. Anne is actually one of the best members we have up here, and a friend of mine, and I very much respect her, but this is a system that actually was created by the other party. During Watergate, when the Republicans were on the ropes and President Nixon was in trouble, they didn’t hide from this issue, they controlled the House and the Senate, and they rushed to the floor, and they had hearings, and they pushed legislation, and they brought labor unions into prominence in the American political process by creating Political Action Committees. It’s the Democratic Party that created this system, and now they’re acknowledging that it doesn’t work.

And instead of defending the current system, which is what our Republican leadership wants to do, I think we should take advantage of it, just like they did a generation ago, and push through what we think is good reform. But, instead, our leadership has been on the run. The aspect that Ms. Northup refers to is the 60-day bright line provision which, frankly, says that if labor unions or other outside groups come in and run these campaign ads, which are really unlimited and unregulated expression of their speech, that they should adhere to the same rules that I have to adhere to. I have to file with the FEC. I am limited by how many contributions and how much an individual can give to my campaign. I don’t take PAC money, but people that do, they’re limited to how much PAC money they can receive, yet, these outside groups can come in, in an unregulated, unlimited way. All we’re saying is if you’re going to come in and play politics in the last 60 days of an election, you need to abide by the same rules as candidates do. That is fair, and it’s fair to both sides.

REP. ANNE NORTHUP: Zach, you know and we all know that you don’t expect those independent expenditures to be upheld by the Supreme Court. The unions will go right on doing what they’re doing. And if this coalition had really believed that they would have crimped the ability of the unions to do this and upheld the-and no matter what-they would have not had the severability clause. But what they’ve said in this bill and what they refuse to back down from was that if the Supreme Court says independent expenditures, unions, we can’t restrict you, that now what we have is the only way to get your answer out, which is through the party money that the candidate who’s disadvantaged is inhibited. If you really believe this was balanced, you would have supported striking that severability clause so that everybody truly did have to play by the same rules. Now what we’re going to have is two separate sets of rules, and it’s not surprising that the same people that gave us the impossible system in the 70’s is the same party that’s driving this with a few Republicans and a few people that feel that their press is making it difficult for them to vote against it because it has the name “reform.”

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Wamp, how do you respond to criticisms of the bill that by denying soft money, which are the large, unregulated, or unrestricted, virtually unrestricted contributions to parties, you’re going to make it very hard for political parties to express their views or support campaigns?

REP. ZACH WAMP: Well, I think political parties should be strengthened. I think you could increase the amount that individuals can contribute to the political parties. That would be one way to strengthen them at the grassroots level, but what we’re doing is saying that these large special interest groups and the proliferation is happening to take place with tobacco and alcohol and gambling, which is one of the newest kids on the block, so to speak, where large sums of money are coming into the political parties when legislation is pending before the Congress. I don’t think you can look yourself in the mirror and defend soft money, and then analysts who talk about this free speech issue, my goodness, all we’re saying is that these groups that come in and play politics like that should have to abide by the same rules as everybody else.

REP. ANNE NORTHUP: You said you don’t believe that they’re going to obstruct that! You would go for the-

MARGARET WARNER: Let him finish. Congresswoman, how do you explain that so many Republicans have sided with the supporters on a lot of these preliminary votes that have been held on some of these killer amendments if this free speech concern is so real?

REP. ANNE NORTHUP: Well, for one thing, I believe that this supports and helps incumbents. I think that, you know, a lot of people have called this the incumbent protection bill, and I think that there are some that just for those reasons support it, but I think-

MARGARET WARNER: Excuse me. You’re saying because it would at least in some way restrict outsiders-

REP. ANNE NORTHUP: Right. And because-

MARGARET WARNER: –to criticize them-

REP. ANNE NORTHUP: –people that are already in power, are already in office may feel that they have a chance to get individual support more easily than a challenger, but I think that-and it keeps parties. You know, what’s going to happen here is that the parties cannot go into a district and help a candidate that’s in trouble when the unions or a special interest comes in against them, because the unions and the special interest groups will not be held to this bill by the Supreme Court. And if the supporters of this bill believed it did, they would have tied those things together constitutionally.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman, your answer on that point.

REP. ZACH WAMP: Well, the parties are still going to be able to go in and help these candidates who are under onslaught by these outside groups. What we’re trying to do is address these outside groups. I find it unbelievable that the defenders of the current system because we’re now in power-I want my party to be the party of reform, Anne-not just of welfare and the budget and everything else but also reform of campaign laws. Our party has not put forth any reasonable solution to this current problem, and it’s not up to the Congress to be the Supreme Court.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman, I’m sorry, but let me ask you to reply to the other point she made, which is that there is a flavor of an incumbent protection act in this.

REP. ZACH WAMP: That’s what they come up with when they’ve put forth no reasonable solutions, themselves. They’re just coming up with last minute distortions of the truth. This doesn’t help incumbents. My goodness, this is fair to everybody from both sides. As a matter of fact, the current system helps the majority stay in power. Why? Because the Republicans get more soft money, because Republicans have the advantage in the money wars, and that’s why the minority, Margaret, always supports reform and the majority opposes reform, and the American people continue to get pushed further and further from the Washington law-making process because the majority holds onto power at all costs. I don’t want my party to be the party of big tobacco or big gambling or big alcohol. I want my party to be the party of grassroots contributions back home-from the people back home. That’s what our party should be all about, not defending the current system so we can stay in power.

REP. ANNE NORTHUP: The fact is, this doesn’t stop one cent of money in politics from still being in politics. It’s now going to flow to mainstream America, to the Coalition for Good Government. Nobody knows what those organizations are, and nobody knows who gives to them. Nobody knows whether it’s Chinese money. Nobody knows if it’s drug-running money, but people who want to influence elections. They’re nothing cleaner than party money because everybody already knows that I support the Republican principles of government, so when the Republican Party comes into an election, it’s no surprise and there’s no under-the-table arrangement, but if a group comes in that the public that has no idea who they are, like are currently in some of our districts.

Mainstream America-you don’t know who they are-you don’t know, you don’t know who gives to them, you don’t know what their real agenda is, we do not believe that the Supreme Court will uphold these provisions that affect these groups. People that wanted right now to affect speech and go through the parties will divert it somewhere else, and there won’t be any limits.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman, quickly, before we go, even if the bill passes tonight, which you’re both predicting it will, can you survive the competing amendments that can be offered later this week under this other procedure?

REP. ZACH WAMP: I think Shays-Meehan will hold up over the balance of the week.

REP. ANNE NORTHUP: I think the freshman bill will end up getting more votes.

MARGARET WARNER: And the freshman bill is a little less stringent, is that right?

REP. ANNE NORTHUP: Yes. And they also are willing to put the severability clause in so that if you say balance, then if one part goes down, both parts go down.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. That’s all the time we have. Thanks very much.