THE HOUSE is scheduled to take up campaign finance reform the week after Labor Day. The leading bill, by Reps. Christopher Shays and Martin Meehan, would ban the use of the national party organizations to raise and spend on behalf of their candidates so-called soft money that the candidates are forbidden by law to raise and spend themselves. It seeks to limit the use of ostensibly independent organizations to raise and spend such money in the form of "issue ads" as well.
As it did unsuccessfully in the past Congress, the resisting Republican leadership has once again put an obstacle course in the measure's path. The Rules Committee, through which the leadership sets the terms of debate, has made 10 amendments in order. They were written -- and chosen -- either to vitiate the bill or to poison it for Democrats who might then take the lead in killing it.
Whether or not the bill is amended, three substitutes then also will be in order. The first, by Rep. John Doolittle, would strike all limits on campaign contributions in favor of disclosure. The second, by Rep. Asa Hutchinson and others, would restrict the use of soft money without banning it. The third, by Rep. Bill Thomas, would merely tinker with current law. Mr. Thomas made it innocuous on purpose. Under the Rules Committee proposal, all that needs to happen is that one of the substitutes passes and the Shays-Meehan bill is dead. Mr. Thomas would sidetrack Shays-Meehan with fluff, a proposal whose strength lies in its wispiness. Who would bother to oppose that?
Bu everyone will understand that this is a case where a yes vote equals no. The House, when finally permitted to vote last year, passed Shays-Meehan by a vote of 252 to 179. Most of the same members are back. They have no basis for reversing themselves. However egregious the fund-raising abuses of the last election may have been, you can be confident on the record that in this election they will be surpassed.
The Senate is scheduled to take up its version of Shays-Meehan, by John McCain and Russell Feingold, in October. There, too, the Republican leadership is opposed, and though the bill had majority support in the last Congress, it lacked the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster. It may well again, but this need not be the last shot at the bill in the Senate in this Congress. A strong House vote will serve as a push in the right direction. Those who cast the vote last year should do so again.