Campaign Reform Update #5: July 24, 1998

As Congress’s August recess approaches, so does a deadline set by the House leadership for agreement on campaign finance reform legislation. Progress is slow, however, and anything passed in the House will probably not be able to be considered in the Senate.

In the third round of House debate on this topic during this Congress, a total of twelve different campaign reform proposals are under consideration. The Rules Committee introduced just one bill, but attached 11 “amendments in the form of substitutes” — complete pieces of legislation that may replace the original bill. A legislative procedure dubbed “Queen of the Hill” makes the proposal that receives the most votes of all the versions passed the bill that will go on to the Senate.

The original bill was defeated by a vote of 156-201 (with 68 members voting “present”). The first substitute, which is expected to get the most votes in the end, is the “Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 1998” (H.R. 3526). This is the House version of the Senate’s McCain-Feingold bill. It was introduced in the House by Representatives Christopher Shays (R-CT) and Martin Meehan (D-MA), and is the only substitute to be debated so far.

H.R. 3526 would prohibit “soft money” contributions to political parties, set up stricter requirements for “issue advocacy” advertising and the disclosure of campaign donations, prohibit fundraising on federal property and limit the use of personal wealth in campaigns.

Debate on H.R. 3526 has been slow because of an unusually large number of amendments that have been offered. Over 250 amendments to the bill were originally filed, but that amount was later reduced to 55. Amendments to H.R. 3526 that have already passed include prohibiting the exchange of political donations for room and/or board at the White House, reimbursement for the use of the presidential jet Air Force One for transportation to a political event, increased penalties for foreigners making illegal campaign contributions and a prohibition on using cash as an incentive to get people to vote.

Two high-profile amendments, however, failed. The first, offered by Representative Bill Paxon (R-NY) would require labor unions to make a public accounting of how they spend their money. This would include strike activities and political contributions. Called a “killer” amendment and “poison pill” by opponents, it was defeated by a vote of 248-150. The other, from Representative John Doolittle (R-CA), would allow citizens groups to report on the policy positions and votes of federal lawmakers. According to a press release from the Christian Coalition, “because the bill is written to protect only printed material presented ‘solely about the voting record or position’ of politicians ‘in an educational manner,’ it places in legal jeopardy any organization that communicates where it stands on the issues.” This print-only provision would also restrict the use of the Internet to post similar information. Despite concern from a diverse range of political groups, Doolittle’s amendment to H.R. 3526 failed by a vote of 201-219.

Among the other substitute amendments are provisions to enact stricter individual and political action committee contribution limits, repealing contribution limits, allowances for public funding of political campaigns, mandatory electronic filing of contributions and “paycheck protection” provisions requiring businesses and/or labor unions to get prior approval before using employee wages for political activity.

Even when the House adopts campaign reform legislation, the prospect of presenting legislation to the president during the 105th Congress is slim. Similar legislation in the Senate has been filibustered for months. It is unlikely that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) will allow the issue to be debated with so few days remaining in this legislative term.

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