WASHINGTON – Two of Maryland’s Republican representatives joined their Democratic counterparts this week and voted for a campaign finance reform bill that would eliminate “soft money.”
Reps. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, and Robert Ehrlich Jr., R- Timonium, were the only members of the state’s delegation voting against the bill.
“I’m a strong proponent of campaign finance reform,” Bartlett said Wednesday. “I just don’t think Shays-Meehan is the way to do it.”
The bill, sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass., passed the House late Tuesday by a 252-177 vote. Most Democrats supported the bill along with 54 Republicans, including Maryland Reps. Wayne Gilchrest of Kennedyville and Constance A. Morella of Bethesda.
Shays-Meehan would overhaul the nation’s campaign finance system by eliminating soft money, now virtually unregulated by the Federal Elections Commission. There is currently no limit on soft-money donations, which cannot be dedicated to a particular candidate but can only be used for “party-building activities.”
The bill also targets issue advocacy, or “sham issue” ads, which do not explicitly endorse a candidate but support an issue and then link a candidate to that issue. The House bill would make those ads subject to the same laws as other campaign ads.
“One individual can give millions and millions of dollars to influence elections. That’s not fair,” said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D- Baltimore, who voted for the bill.
Morella said the reform measure would help “restore confidence in government … by enhancing the integrity of our campaign finance system.
“I cannot say that it corrupts the decisions that are being made,” Morella said. “It just takes so much time to go out and raise that much money.”
She added that campaign finance reform would stop government from becoming “a playground for billionaires.”
Gilchrest said many members remember which special interests contributed to their campaigns, which can make objectivity “difficult.”
The reform bill “was a positive thing to vote for, Republican or Democrat,” he said.
Bartlett agreed that too much money is being spent in elections, but said a better reform would be to require at least 75 percent of a campaign’s funding be from the congressman’s own district. He said this would also limit extraordinarily rich candidates who use their own funds.
Ehrlich, who called the bill an unconstitutional infringement of free speech, said he would like to see more financial disclosure and cheaper television spots.
He said the real campaign finance problems are at the presidential, not the congressional, level.
“The Democrats controlled the House for 40 years and this was never brought up,” Ehrlich said. “And suddenly this is good government.”
Reform still faces a difficult journey in the Senate, where a GOP filibuster killed the Senate version of Shays-Meehan last year. The Senate bill, sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., is expected to come to a vote in October.
Gilchrest said Shays told him the bill had a “50-50 chance” and Morella gives the Senate bill “a reasonably good chance” if it can overcome another filibuster. Cardin is not as optimistic.
“I don’t think they [the bill’s chances] are very good,” Cardin said. “But I think it’s the only bill that can pass. It’s our best chance at campaign finance reform this year.”
Ehrlich said a number of House Republicans voted for the bill as “political cover … knowing that it will fail in the Senate,” although he emphasized that Morella and Gilchrest were not among them.
“Hopefully it will die [in the Senate] again,” Bartlett said. “I feel bad saying that because we do need to do something.”