Death by Debate?
By Guy Gugliotta
And that's not all. The bill was written last year, left for dead this spring and then resurrected last month -- but it probably will die again in August after spirited debate. Making laws, it is said, is about as attractive as making sausage. Not making laws may get even uglier.
"It's confusing at best," said House Rules Committee Chairman Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.), responsible for shaping this bill so it could come to the floor. "And it gets complicated very fast."
Deliberately complicated, many Democrats contend. Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), called the procedure "death by amendment," and Rep. Martin Frost (D-Tex.) accused the Republican leadership of "pervert[ing] the process into a cynical exercise."
Not so, responded Solomon, from his home in the Adirondacks. In fact, the debate should proceed rather handily, he said. It will need "the equivalent of three or four days," he said, not, as the Democrats charge, "three or four weeks."
With the debate barely begun, what follows is an attempt to decode this elegant cipher so that campaign reform mavens and C-Span junkies can follow along with the lawmakers when they return from the Fourth of July break this week. Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) has pledged that the House will finish the bill by the August recess and will schedule debate whenever he can block out a few idle hours.
But should the House even pass campaign finance reform, it likely will die in the Senate, where legislation has been mired in a filibuster for months, with Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) showing little inclination to revisit it.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and the rest of the House Republican leadership, none of them fans of campaign finance reform, also showed little inclination to move at all until this spring, when a Democrat-led effort to force a bill to the floor seemed likely to succeed.
Once having blinked, however, the GOP leaders have decided to give everyone who had a bill or an amendment an opportunity to have it debated. Opening the floodgates was the only way to satisfy everyone, Solomon said.
The "underlying bill," or "base bill" is the train upon which everything else will ride. The leadership chose the Bipartisan Campaign Integrity Act, whose centerpiece is a prohibition on "soft money," contributions to party organizations. It was drafted by first-termers of both parties and is known colloquially as "the freshman bill."
Solomon's Rules Committee, which determines procedures for floor debate, then attached 11 amendments to the underlying bill, each of them a fully formed alternative. These are called "amendments in the form of a substitute."
Several of these proposals are wishful thinking. Wisconsin Democrat David R. Obey's Let the Public Decide Campaign Finance Reform Act calls for public financing of campaigns, about as popular with Republicans as cholera. Colorado Republican Robert W. Schaffer's Paycheck Protection Act is the latest in a long string of GOP efforts to limit organized labor's political activity and is a non-starter for anybody with a serious union constituency.
The hot one, however, is the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 1998, also known as "Shays/Meehan," for its principal sponsors, Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.).
Shays/Meehan prohibits soft money but has a variety of other restrictions that make it fancier and more all-encompassing than the freshman bill. Shays/Meehan is the House version of the bill that is pending in the Senate.
Under the rule devised by Solomon's committee, each of the 11 alternatives will be debated for one hour, opened for amendment, then voted upon. The alternative receiving the most votes wins, but if no alternative receives a majority, there is no bill.
This procedure is known as "Queen of the Hill," a beauty contest with 11 contestants. The freshman bill is also an alternative (to itself), and is expected to be the finalist that competes with Shays/Meehan.
"Queen of the Hill," by the way, has a sibling, "King of the Hill," in which the last substitute to get a majority of votes wins the debate, even if a previous substitute is more popular. Solomon, victimized by the "King of the Hill" maneuver when Democrats controlled the House, says he will not use it.
On June 10, members took the floor for the debate's opening skirmish: a constitutional amendment to restrict free speech, proposed by critics of campaign finance reform to dramatize the difficulties that serious alternatives, particularly Shays/Meehan, would have in overcoming court challenges.
Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) offered the amendment to put Democrats on the spot for having originally proposed the measure last year when they thought it was a good idea.
"Early on in the year, I thought, because of my opposition to campaign reform, that I frankly would try to block its coming to the floor," DeLay said on the floor. "This is the time to have this debate."
For shame, replied Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine), a co-sponsor of the freshman bill: "This is an attempt to drag a red herring across this whole discussion." The amendment went down 29 to 345, with DeLay himself voting against it.
A week later, members debated alternative No. 1, creating a commission to study campaign finance reform. It went down 156-201, with 68 members voting "present," which is probably going to be a trend. The commission had adherents among those who thought something was better than nothing, but with beauty contest procedures in effect, many reformers did not want to take the chance of displacing a favorite.
The next day, Solomon presented "Rule 2," which provided for consideration of 258 separate amendments to the 11 alternatives. This landed like a bomb among Democrats, who claimed sabotage: "This rule assures that the House will never be able to come to a conclusion on this issue," Frost said.
The rule passed, 221 to 189, but Solomon says it is less daunting than it sounds. If someone wants to offer the same amendment to all 11 alternatives, then it counts as 11 amendments, he explained, but if it gets voted down once, it is not likely to be offered again: "It would make a member look foolish," he said.
There are serious amendments. When debate reopened June 19, House Oversight Committee Chairman William M. Thomas (R-Calif.), offered a crippler to Shays/Meehan (alternative No. 2), negating the entire bill if the courts throw out any part of it. The amendment lost by a vote of 254 to 155.
And there are amendments designed to make a point. Republicans have offered several to prohibit or restrict the president's ability to give a contributor a ride on Air Force One or a White House sleepover. One amendment requires the president to post the name of any non-governmental Air Force One passenger on the Internet 30 days before the flight.
DeLay offered an amendment to express "the sense of Congress" that contrary to the stated views of Vice President Gore, there is "a controlling legal authority" prohibiting solicitation of funds from federal property. He also called for Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint an independent counsel to investigate wrongdoing in the 1996 elections.
There have not been votes yet on these amendments.
Shays/Meehan will still be up for consideration when the House returns to work this week, and there is much more contentious and frequently nasty debate to come. Shays found it all "exciting" at first, but offered a quick reappraisal when the rhetorical rocks started to fly:
"This should be a time I really feel great, and I do not," Shays said during the Rule 2 debate. "What I do not feel great about is the sense that somehow this is going to be a brutal fight and we are going to make lots of enemies in the process."
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