WASHINGTON — A committee on Thursday sent dueling campaign finance bills to the House floor, moving Congress a step closer to enacting the biggest changes in a quarter-century in the way the nation pays for its elections.
“Today we are here to mark the beginning of the end of the soft money system in American politics,” said Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., author with Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., of the bill that would ban the flow of unregulated donations to political parties.
In a carefully orchestrated procedure, the Republican-controlled House Administration Committee unfavorably reported the Shays-Meehan bill to the floor while favorably reporting legislation by Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, that is the choice of the House Republican leadership.
But Shays-Meehan, similar to the legislation that passed the Senate in April, will be the bill to beat when the House takes up the campaign finance issue in the week after the July 4th recess.
A coalition of Democrats and about 50 Republicans passed similar versions in the House in 1998 and 1999, only to see the bills die in the Senate. But this year Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., succeeded in passing their partner bill, vastly improving chances for the first big change in campaign spending law since 1974.
“We can’t be arrogant about this because we could lose big time,” said Shays, noting that the GOP leadership was mobilizing to defeat or debilitate their bill. “But we’ve had a little practice at this.”
“We’re in an arms race,” Shays said, noting that the previous night his own party, led by President Bush, had gathered at a fund-raiser that brought in a record $20 million for GOP congressional candidates.
“I’m a little hung over from the fund-raiser last night,” joked McCain, a longtime critic of money politics, as he joined Shays and Meehan at a news conference.
Shays-Meehan would attempt to slow down this flow of money into politics by banning soft money, or unlimited contributions that unions, corporations and individuals may donate to political parties for uses other than expressly advocating a candidate’s election or defeat.
It also bars unions, corporations and some independent groups from broadcasting certain types of political advertising within 60 days of an election or 30 days of a primary.
On the issue of hard money, the regulated contributions made directly to candidates, the bill makes a concession to the Congressional Black Caucus and other Democrats unhappy with the Senate bill’s doubling of the hard money limit an individual can make to a candidate per election to $2,000.
Under Shays-Meehan, the limit for Senate campaigns would increase to $2,000, but it would stay at $1,000, adjusted for inflation, for House elections.
On the whole though, Shays-Meehan mirrors the Senate-passed bill. The sponsors hope to get their bill through the House with few changes, so that it can be accepted by the Senate without the need for a House-Senate conference that could be used by opponents to derail final passage.
Ney would ban parties from raising or using soft money for federal election activities such as TV ads, but would permit soft money that goes to voter registration and get-out-the-vote activities. The limit to such donations would be $75,000.
Ney requires those running “issue ads” in the final days of an election to better identify themselves, but doesn’t ban them as Shays-Meehan does. He keeps the current hard money limits for individual donations, but allows hard money contributions to political parties to increase.
His approach, he said, was “a reasonable step that should appeal to many interests.”
At stake is a soft money flow that reached nearly $500 million in the last election, about double what the two parties raised during the 1996 presidential election.
“Any bill which doesn’t ban soft money is not a reform bill at all,” said Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del. “Soft money is a curse on our system.”
The Supreme Court this week bolstered the Shays-Meehan side by ruling that hard money contributions that parties make to candidates could be limited. Opponents argued that limits were illegal and undemocratic.
“The campaign finance zealots have chosen to limit and regulate two of America’s most precious commodities, free speech and freedom of association,” said Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga.
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