Pressure Mounts to Debate Campaign Spending Limits

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

( - Just 11 blank lines on a discharge petition stand between the Shays-Meehan Campaign Finance Reform bill and a debate and vote on the House floor. But the 11 signatures needed to fill those lines may not be easily obtained.

A discharge petition is a procedural tactic used to force a bill to the floor of the House for debate when a committee or subcommittee with jurisdiction over the bill will not refer it to the full body. House rules require 218 signatures; the Shays-Meehan petition has 207 signatories with the addition of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) on Thursday.

"People who do not sign the discharge petition cannot fairly be deemed to stand in support of reform," challenged Scott Harshbarger, president of Common Cause. He says representatives are facing a serious choice. "Will they choose 'K' Street in Washington or Main Street in their districts?" he asked. K Street is home to many of Washington's most influential lobbyists.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), sponsor of the original legislation that has already passed the Senate, laments the amount of money spent on political campaigns.

"Americans have become a little bit numb to the reality that here we are with a geometrically increasing (amount of) soft money, which is now in the hundreds of millions of dollars," he says. "All this money makes good people do bad things," he claims.

But critics say the bill, sponsored by Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), would limit their First Amendment right to free speech. Attorney James Bopp, Jr. with the James Madison Center for Free Speech says even the stated purpose of the bill, reducing corruption among politicians, is misleading.

"There is not one sentence, not one phrase in McCain-Feingold or Shays-Meehan that lays a hand on a politician," Bopp continues. "It's them regulating everyone else."

"The more restrictive campaign finance rules are, the less likely incumbents are to be defeated," Bopp says, "because the people won't know what they are doing, other than what the incumbents are prepared to tell them."

Bopp says dozens of provisions within Shays-Meehan limit political parties, labor unions, and other citizens' groups from commenting on the actions of incumbents. One such provision would forbid the use of an incumbent's name in radio or television advertising for 60 days prior to an election, unless the commercials were paid for by one of the candidates in the race.

"What we need is more money spent informing the American people what Congressmen are doing to us and for us in office, not less" Bopp suggests. "That would lead to more information about who Members of Congress are and which policies they support or oppose. That would give us a better democracy!"

Bopp also points out that supporters could have had a floor debate without the discharge petition if that was their true goal. However, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) insisted on a rule for consideration of the bill requiring that 14 amendments added in committee be voted on separately after the debate.

"They didn't want people to know what they were up to," Bopp says, pointing out that Shays-Meehan proponents stopped the bill from coming to the floor by voting against Hastert's rule. He says the proposed amendments would create huge loopholes in the bill's soft money ban, pandering to political special interests. If brought to the floor by the discharge petition, the amended version of the bill would be voted on with no opportunity to consider those amendments, according to Bopp.

Supporters hope to have 215 signatures within a few days. Co-sponsor Meehan hopes that reaching that plateau will encourage Hastert to bring the bill up for consideration. Doing so would avoid the embarrassment that would presumably come from having a majority of the members of his own party sign the petition.