THE HOUSE has what ought to be an easy vote to cast today -- "yes" on campaign finance reform. The bill the reluctant Republican leadership has finally brought to the floor passed by a vote of 252 to 179 in the last Congress. Most of the same members are back. The need is, if anything, greater; they have no reason to renege.
The modest measure, by Reps. Christopher Shays and Martin Meehan, seeks to halt only the most egregious of the fund-raising abuses that flourished in the last campaign. It would bar 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 other, nominally independent organizations to raise and spend such money in the form of "issue ads" as well.
The leadership, having been forced by threat of a discharge petition to let the bill on the floor, has sprinkled obstacles in its path. Ten amendments will be in order. They were carefully written to sound innocuous while either weakening the bill or poisoning it for Democrats who might then relieve the Republicans of responsibility by taking the lead in voting no. One purports to defend voter guides but, as written, would likely make all issue ads unassailable. One, of dubious constitutionality, would require candidates to raise half their contributions in their home states; its adoption would likely drive Democrats from low-income districts to reject the entire bill. Everyone understands this. The amendments should be voted down, as should the three substitutes that will then also be in order. They too are weaker than the bill. One, by Rep. Bill Thomas, is a deliberate nullity, the theory being that no one will bother to vote against. But if any of these passes, the underlying bill is dead. That too is well understood.
The bill that passed last year was deflected by the Republican leadership in the Senate. This one faces similar resistance. It is a subject that, more than any other, causes hypocrisy to flower. The president, whose flagrant circumvention of the law in 1996 helped prompt the legislation, now takes the lead in supporting it. The Republicans, meanwhile, having spent the better part of the last Congress rightly denouncing his behavior, now block the bill that would outlaw it; they, it turns out, are the ones who profit most from the system they deplore. The parties are raising far more soft money in this cycle than they did in the last. The campaign finance law has pretty well ceased to exist, except on paper. Shays-Meehan would begin to restore it. That's what this vote is about.