SIX REPUBLICANS have now signed the discharge petition to force campaign finance reform legislation onto the House floor over the objections of their party leadership. It's no fun to do such a thing; they signed because they fear, with cause, that the leisurely schedule the leadership has set for the bill will have the effect of killing it. Their gutsy decision raises a question: What about the other Republicans, some 48 of them, who have claimed at one time or another to support the bill? Where are their signatures? You listen in vain for an answer to that one.
The signers include Rep. Connie Morella of Montgomery County, plus Reps. Christopher Shays, part author of the leading bill; Michael Castle of Delaware; Michael Forbes of New York; Greg Ganske of Iowa; and Nancy Johnson of Connecticut. They bring to 202 the number of names on the petition; 218 are needed. It's possible that a few more Democrats can be prevailed upon to sign, but without more Republicans the petition fails.
There are eight now serving who signed a similar petition to force the same bill to the House floor last year. They include two other members of the local delegation, Reps. Tom Davis and Frank Wolf of Northern Virginia. Where are they? Where are Reps. Zack Wamp and Marge Roukema, who took the lead earlier in the year in pressuring the leadership to act. "I don't want to be part of a procedure that's essentially going to kill the bill this year" by holding it up until too late, Mrs. Roukema was quoted as saying two weeks ago. So? "If you wait until September" as the leadership proposes, "the Senate will just run out the clock," said Mr. Wamp. And therefore he now . . . signs?
The Senate was last year's burial ground as well. The bill easily passed the House once the leadership's resisting hand was forced. A majority favored it in the Senate as well, but the leadership there twice organized filibusters to kill it. This is hardly blockbuster legislation. It would outlaw the most egregious of current campaign finance abuses, the soft-money fiction whereby the national party organizations are used to raise and spend on behalf of their candidates the money the candidates are forbidden by law to raise and spend themselves. It would put some modest limits on the use of other committees as similar straws.
In the absence of such constraints, both parties are busily raising vast amounts of such unregulated money. At the current rates, the year 2000 election will make the ugly 1996 election look like a picnic. Just the other day, the newspaper Roll Call reported that the House leadership was trying to assemble $25 million this way. Control of the House will be at stake next year, as well as control of the White House. Every interest group in town is playing, from the rifle association and health care groups to the credit card people (the bankruptcy bill), the unions, defense contractors, the teachers (reauthorization of the main forms of aid to education), the bankers (financial services reform), the aviation industry (airport and airway trust fund extension) . . . you name it.
None of it's bean bag. If the government doesn't end up bought, it won't be for lack of trying. This bill is a frail protection, the very least they ought to pass. That's what the missing signatures on this petition are, or are not, about.