By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 6, 2006
The House approved campaign finance legislation last night that would benefit Republicans by placing strict caps on contributions to nonprofit committees that spent heavily in the last election while removing limits on political parties' spending coordinated with candidates.
The bill passed 218 to 209 in a virtual party-line vote.
Lifting party spending limits would aid Republican candidates because the GOP has consistently raised far more money than the Democratic Party. Similarly, barring "527" committees from accepting large unregulated contributions known as "soft money" would disadvantage Democrats, whose candidates received a disproportionate share of the $424 million spent by nonprofit committees in 2003-2004.
The 527 committees, named for a section of the tax law, are tax-exempt organizations that use voter mobilization and issue-based ads to influence federal elections. They grew in importance after the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law barred federal candidates and national parties from accepting unlimited donations from individuals, unions and corporations.
In 2003-2004, for example, international financier George Soros broke all contribution records by giving a total of $27 million to pro-Democratic groups such as America Coming Together and the Media Fund.
Although the measure's prospects for approval in the Senate are considered slim, House Republicans wanted a vote on what they could describe as "reform" legislation. At the same time, GOP leaders sought to embarrass Democrats by making them vote in apparent support of the use of soft money in federal campaigns.
House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) described the bill as "the first piece of the broad GOP lobbying and earmark reform package." Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) declared that the legislation demonstrates that "the Republican Party is the party of reform."
Their statements drew ridicule from Democrats. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the measure is designed to tilt campaign finance in favor of the GOP and will not change the public image of this session as "the Congress that Jack and Tom built."
He was referring to former powerful GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in January to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials, and former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who this week announced plans to resign his seat rather than face a tough reelection campaign.
"You have allowed it [the House] to become an auction house," Emanuel said.
Republicans, who had adamantly opposed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, called for expansion of the measure's ban on soft money to cover the 527 committees. The House bill would limit to $5,000 a year the amount an individual could give to a 527 committee active in federal elections and $25,000 to a committee engaging in partisan voter registration. It would prohibit all corporate and union contributions.
Organizations such as Common Cause, Democracy 21 and Public Citizen, past legislative adversaries of the GOP, were allied with Republicans in yesterday's floor fight. Democrats had the backing of a long list of conservative leaders opposed to regulation, including Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and Paul M. Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation.
Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said that any supporter of McCain-Feingold who did not vote for the measure "is a hypocrite."
Democrats, in contrast, took up Republicans' main argument against campaign finance legislation, declaring that the 527 provisions would trample free-speech rights. Republicans are "trying to muzzle the voices of American people who speak through 527s," said Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.).
The Maryland delegation voted against the bill, except Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest. Virginia's delegation voted along partisan lines, with the eight Republicans in favor and the three Democrats against.
A total of 18 Republicans defected, including Maryland's Roscoe G. Bartlett. There were seven Democratic defectors, most of them advocates of campaign finance laws.
While the focus of the debate was the 527 provisions, the lifting of the ceiling on party spending done in full coordination with individual candidates could significantly influence the outcome of contests this year.
Under current law, parties can spend unlimited amounts in support of candidates but only limited sums can be spend in coordination with the candidates.