The Bipartisan Death of Campaign Finance Reform

July 21, 2001 • Commentary

The debate about new campaign finance regulation came to a quick — and unexpected — halt in the House of Representatives last week. Moreover, it was House Democrats, the presumed defenders of “reform,” who voted as a party against a rule that would have brought the Shays‐​Meehan bill to the floor of the House. The Shays‐​Meehan sponsors say the rule adopted by the GOP leadership for debating the bill was unfair and deserved to be defeated. After the vote, Rep. Christopher Shays (R‐​Conn.) blamed the GOP leadership for the damage done to his cause. In fact, the death of campaign finance regulation was an example of bipartisan cooperation.

Conventional wisdom, as represented by editorials in major newspapers, says that Republicans don’t want limits because they are the party of the rich, and the rich give them money in return for legislative favors that hurt the little guy. Democrats are for campaign finance reform because they represent the little guy who does not have money to give. And thus Democrats want a political system in which money giving is restricted so that little guys have a chance to “win” legislative battles.

The realistic view is that members of both parties are ambivalent about reform. On the one hand both sides favor new campaign finance regulations because limiting the expenditure of money reduces electoral competition and thus enhances the reelection probabilities of incumbents. Members already in office, be they Republican or Democrat, favor restraints.

On the other hand because neither party holds a decisive advantage in either chamber of Congress, neither Democrats nor Republicans want to restrict electoral competition in ways that preclude the possibility of gaining a larger majority. Consider the question of soft money, the largely unregulated contributions to the political parties. “Reform” bills in both the Senate and the House propose a total ban on soft money. Traditionally the Republicans have had an edge in raising soft money and thus do not want to restrict its use.

Prior to the 2000 election, almost all Democrats supported a ban on soft money, which would eliminate a Republican advantage in elections. In 2000, the Democrats drew even with the Republicans in raising soft money. Democrats in the current Congress, particularly black and Hispanic Democrats, now realize that constraints on soft money would hurt them as much as Republicans, particularly in their get‐​out‐​the‐​vote efforts in minority communities, which were successful in the 2000 elections.

In this realistic view of the politics of campaign finance, House Democrats faced a real problem going into the debate. If Shays‐​Meehan passed, the Democrats might lack the resources to fight the next few elections. However, House Democrats could not simply vote against Shays‐​Meehan because they had always supported “reform” in the past. House Democrats needed to both kill Shays‐​Meehan and make sure the Republican leadership of the House would be blamed for the murder. Voting against the rule for debating Shays‐​Meehan accomplished both goals.

House Republican leaders can also say they gave Shays‐​Meehan every chance to come to the floor. Speaker Dennis Hastert offered a compromise late in the game that would have brought Shays‐​Meehan to a vote. Later, after the rule for debate failed to attract a majority, Hastert said he would not bring the legislation back to the House in the near future.

So new campaign finance regulations are probably dead for this year, and both parties can plausibly argue that their opponents did the terrible deed. In truth, members of both parties, not excluding their leaders, must be relieved that the McCain‐​Feingold‐​Shays‐​Meehan runaway train got derailed.

Along the way, we have learned some important truths. Far from being anti‐​democratic, campaign contributions are needed to engage citizens in elections, to register them to vote, and to get them to the polling place. Far from protecting the powerful, money turns out to be essential to the political aspirations of minorities. Far from being the source of all evil, money plays a laudable and necessary role in American elections, a function protected by the First Amendment. These realities led to the bipartisan death of Shays‐​Meehan. Members of Congress should keep them in mind if campaign finance “reform” yet again rears its ugly head.

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