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Left-wing group bullying Congress into campaign finance reform legislation

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted August 13, 2001

The proponents of so-called campaign finance reform say they are close to forcing another vote in the House on this issue. They need 218 votes to force the matter onto the calendar. The advocates of the bill say they have 203 signatures on what is called a "discharge petition," the mechanism to force the leadership to act on a bill when the leadership wants to keep it bottled up. The fact that the number of signatures is that high is the result, ironically, of a reform pushed through the House by former Congressman, now Senator, Jim Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, a staunch opponent of this kind of campaign reform.

Prior to Inhofe's initiative, signing a discharge petition was a secret act. Only other members could know who signed a petition, and in fact there were severe penalties for Members who disclosed the names of signers. As a result, members could claim to be for a piece of legislation while at the same time taking no action to force a vote on such legislation. It was one of many ways that Members of Congress could have things both ways. Inhofe, with the aid of talk radio, made a crusade out of this duplicity. And even though the Congress was overwhelmingly in the hands of the Democrats at the time, Inhofe and his talk radio allies kicked up such a storm that the House rules were changed. Now who signs a discharge petition is a matter of public record.

Normally that is a very positive development. In this case, it is causing the House leadership a problem. The House leadership doesn't like the Shays-Meehan "campaign reform" legislation. They were delighted when the rule to bring that issue to the floor was defeated. At that point, Speaker Hastert washed his hands of the issue and said he would not bring up the bill for another vote. He basically told supporters that he would not act unless he were forced to do so via the discharge petition. Supporters of the legislation along with Common Cause, a left-wing interest group, took up the challenge and surprised the leadership with the rapidity with which they got members to sign the petition.

Congress is now in recess. Common Cause members plan to visit the district offices of members who are on record supporting Shays-Meehan but who have not signed the petition. They believe they can shame enough members into signing the petition. Perhaps they can, but perhaps not.

First, some of those who initially signed on to Shays-Meehan now have to face the fact that the unions have turned on the bill. So, as was the case with the president's energy bill, the liberal coalition is split. This forces some of the members to choose between conflicting allies. Some may go with the unions since the unions produce real campaign dollars. Common Cause not only doesn't produce any campaign funds, it aims to dry up those funds. Secondly, some members may not want to cross the leadership. The views of the GOP hierarchy are well understood and signing the discharge petition will be seen as an act of defiance against the leadership.

If the public really were demanding campaign reform, then Common Cause would certainly prevail. But this issue doesn't even show up on the radar screen. The media is all for the bill, but the public could not care less. So now we will see which members fear the media more than their own constituents and which members can be browbeaten by Common Cause into taking a position which, by virtue of the vote earlier this year in the House, it is clear they don't support. After Labor Day we will have our answer. ESR

Paul M. Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

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