On Feb. 13 the House of Representatives passed the Shays-Meehan campaign finance bill by a vote of 240-189. Forty-one Republicans joined all but 12 Democrats in voting for a ban on large, unregulated donations of “soft money” to political action committees, political parties and candidates seeking federal office. Its provisions become effective Nov. 6, one day after Election Day.

Support for the legislation was strengthened by revelations that Enron and its officials had forked over nearly $6 million in soft money between 1989 and 2002.

The vote came after opponents made several attempts to derail the bill through “poison pill” amendments or by proposing rival bills. Similar legislation passed the Senate in April 2001 by only 59 votes, one vote shy of the 60 needed to override a filibuster.

While hailing the legislation as a “step in the right direction,” Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign, said the Shays-Meehan Bill, with its ban on six- and seven-figure soft money donations, “did not go far enough.” Nyhart added that it did nothing to “hard” money “except to make it easier to give by doubling the previous $1,000 limit on contributions that go directly to candidates.”

Nyhart said the movement for campaign financing that won passage of the House bill scored two victories. “The House beat back all right-wing efforts to defeat the legislation but, even more importantly,” he said, “it showed that reformers can have an effect. Campaign finance reform has been on the agenda for seven years. With passage of Shays-Meehan, we can now refocus the debate on hard money.”

Passage in the Senate, where Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has threatened a filibuster, “is not a done deal,” Nyhart said.

Curtiss Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, said he was “not sure” of the value of Shays-Meehan. “It has as many negatives as positives. We may get rid of the influence of money in one way, only to have it increase in others. And clearly, the ban on issue ads is unconstitutional.”

Many in the movement to reform the nation’s election laws see the measure as a boon to incumbents and point to the 2000 election, where George Bush reported raising $1,000 from each of 61,000 individual donors for a total of more than $60 million. If he can find that many contributors in 2004 – a cinch for a sitting president – the Shays-Meehan Bill will be worth double that amount.

Nyhart and others pointed to Arizona, which has publicly financed elections for candidates seeking state office, as an example of what might be done at the federal level. Joe Bernick, who heads up the Salt of the Earth Labor College in Phoenix, Ariz., agrees with those who say, “Clean Election” laws are not the be-all and end-all of election reform.

“I’m concerned that many liberals think this reform – and it is progressive – will make all the difference in election campaigns and are, therefore, letting down their guard.”

He said the law “is meaningless” unless it is accompanied by a “a well-organized get out the vote campaign” by a coalition of progressive forces to counter the cash that will now be pouring into GOP coffers.”

Bernick told the World the system “works best” in legislative races and in secondary state offices like treasurer. The Arizona law, which was passed as an initiative measure in 1988, requires a candidate for the legislature to collect five dollars each from 200 contributors in order to qualify for $15,000 in state money for their primary election campaign and $25,000 for the general election.

Although many candidates opted for private financing in 2000 because of an unresolved legal challenge to the law, Bernick expects almost all candidates for the legislature and most candidates for statewide office to rely on public funds for their campaigns this year.

Joelle Fishman, chair of the Communist Party’s Political Action Commission, says public financing of elections will help increase representation of working people in city councils, state legislatures and Congress. “If Congress were a majority of working people, priorities in our country would change dramatically,” she told the World. “Then we could talk seriously about such demands as publicly run energy and steel industries, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and creation of good jobs with union rights and affirmative action. We could fight more effectively for a fair tax system, a decent public health system and ending poverty.”


Fred Gaboury
Fred Gaboury

Fred Gaboury was a member of the Editorial Board of the print edition of  People’s Weekly World/Nuestro Mundo and wrote frequently on economic, labor and political issues. Gaboury died in 2004. Here is a small selection of Fred’s significant writings: Eight days in May Birmingham and the struggle for civil rights; Remembering the Rev. James Orange; Memphis 1968: We remember; June 19, 1953: The murder of the Rosenbergs; World Bank and International Monetary Fund strangle economies of Third World countries