July 18, 2001

Campaign Finance Reform

In recent months, campaign finance reform has been the subject of much discussion and controversy in Congress. According to news outlets, U.S. President George W. Bush is likely to sign any bill on campaign finance reform that comes to his desk. Thus, the White House has distanced itself from the debate in Congress in order to maintain a neutral position.

Two bills vied for majority vote in the House of Representatives last week—the Shays-Meehan bill (H.R. 2356), sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-CT) and Martin Meehan (D-MA), and the Ney-Wynn bill (H.R. 2360), sponsored by Reps. Bob Ney (R-OH) and Albert Wynn (D-MD). Despite predictions that the Shays-Meehan bill would win, it "died" on a technicality in the House last Thursday. The House voted 228–203 to reject a rule that would have determined the debate on the bill, thus letting it fail to make the House floor.

Even though Republican leadership has shelved the Shays-Meehan bill for the remainder of the year, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and other supporters of the bill are considering a "discharge petition." This petition sent to the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, and signed by at least 218 congressman, would force a vote on the floor.

Supporters of the Shays-Meehan bill claim that it will limit the influence of major financial contributors in politics. If it passes, the Shays-Meehan will blend well with its Senate counterpart, the McCain-Feingold bill (S.27), which passed in April and bans unlimited contributions (known as "soft money') to political parties.

Opponents of Shays-Meehan say that it amounts to an unconstitutional restraint on free speech. Many feel that it embraces the notion that more regulations on our right to political discourse is the solution. For example, it places unprecedented limitations on commentary about voting records issued by organizations; places a two-month blackout on all television and radio issue advertising before primary and general elections; and restrains commentary by ordinary citizens prior to an election.

"Home School Legal Defense Association's National Center and other lobbying groups that advocate citizen awareness may be restricted in their ability to inform the public. HSLDA and other groups like it, may be prohibited from issuing voting records of our representatives and senators," said Caleb Kershner, acting director of the National Center.

Presented to Congress as an alternative to the Shays-Meehan, the Ney-Wynn bill caps soft money donations and requires groups airing third-party "issue ads" within 120 days of an election to disclose who financed them. In contrast, Shays-Meehan and its Senate counterpart would ban those ads within 60 days of an election—a measure the National Center, as well as several members of Congress, believe would violate Americans' First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

"The United States government was established to protect the open and free marketplace of ideas. The Shays-Meehan bill would greatly restrict our right to free speech. America's Founding Fathers wrote the first amendment to protect our freedom to engage in political discourse, " Kershner said.