The news stories last week said that the House had passed "a bipartisan campaign finance bill." It would be more accurate to say that the legislation dramatizes the near-impossibility of this Congress's doing anything substantial on a bipartisan basis.
The claim of bipartisanship rests on the sponsorship of the bill by Reps. Chris Shays, a Connecticut Republican, and Marty Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat. The Shays-Meehan partnership is a twin to the Senate pairing of John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, who wrote a nearly identical companion measure.
But the voting pattern gives the lie to the "bipartisan" label. House Democrats supported Shays-Meehan 197 to 13 while Republicans opposed it 164 to 54.
Last year, when the Senate voted on shutting off a filibuster against McCain-Feingold, you saw an even sharper split between the parties. Democrats voted 44 to 0 to end the filibuster, Republicans 48 to 7 to keep it going, which effectively killed the bill.
When the Senate takes up campaign finance next month, as promised, the Republicans will again try to filibuster it to death. In 1998 the proponents fell nine votes short of the 60 needed to end a filibuster, and as yet no evidence indicates they have begun to make up the deficit. Hence the prospect that Congress will fail once again to do anything to clean up a problem that has disillusioned the public about the whole political system.
It doesn't have to be this way. Valid ideas have been offered by both Republicans and Democrats -- ideas that would remove the stench of scandal and make elections more competitive. But it won't happen until the two sides start listening to each other.
The heart of both McCain-Feingold and Shays-Meehan is a ban on "soft money," the six-figure contributions to party campaign committees from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals. The AFL-CIO supports the ban. Major corporate executives also say they want to end the politicians' heavy-handed solicitation of stockholder funds. Former presidents Carter and Ford agree it should end; Vice President Gore and former senator Bill Bradley would do that -- and more. Texas Gov. George W. Bush says "soft money" from corporations and unions should be banned, though he would let individuals continue to drop in big sums.
The sponsors of this legislation are absolutely right to insist that "soft money" should go. But they also wrote into their bill a constitutionally dubious provision attempting to regulate preelection "issue ads" that criticize or praise candidates for particular policy stands. There's no doubt some of these ads, often sponsored by advocacy groups, are transparent end-runs around the disclosure requirements applied to straightforward political spending.
But this provision provides a convenient rationale for opposing the bill, and it allows dedicated enemies of campaign finance reform, such as Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, to stand behind a First Amendment shield and put a high-minded gloss on their unwillingness to give up those high-dollar "soft money" contributions. On Wednesday McCain and Feingold said they were willing to drop that part of the bill, but it was not clear whether most Democrats would go along.
If Shays, Meehan, McCain and Feingold are right on "soft money," their Republican opponents are equally correct about another point. They say that the quarter-century-old limit of $1,000 on individual contributions to federal candidates needs to be raised. Inflation has shrunk the value of that contribution, while costs for television, mailings and other elements of campaigns have risen.
Some contend that raising the limit would enhance the influence of the wealthy elite. The reality is that campaigns are financed by a small slice of the electorate now. Raising the contribution limit would not change the contributor mix; it would simply reduce the number of phone calls a candidate has to make and the number of evenings he has to spend glad-handing the moneybags. The obvious trade-off that would produce a genuinely bipartisan bill is a ban on soft money combined with a significant increase in the $1,000 contribution limit. What keeps that from happening is partisanship.
Would such a bill clean up the system? Not entirely, but it would be a start -- and proof that Washington can act, not just talk endlessly.
With that kind of bare-bones agreement in place, the parties might be willing to allow other ideas to be offered as separate legislation. That would be the right time to debate any possible regulation of "issue ads" and more worthy legislation for public financing of campaigns, which House Republicans refused to let that chamber consider last week.
There is a way out of this legislative trap. But calling Shays-Meehan "bipartisan legislation" is not the way to find it.