WASHINGTON – Five of Maryland’s eight House delegates voted Wednesday for a campaign finance reform measure that would ban unregulated “soft money” to national political party committees.
The 240-191 vote allowed the Shays-Meehan “base bill” to move forward, but lawmakers were still debating a slew of amendments Wednesday evening that could stall the bill or poison it when it returns to the Senate.
A final vote was not expected until late Wednesday or, possibly, Thursday.
There is currently no cap on the amount of soft money that individuals or groups can give to parties, which use the money as they see fit. Soft money can also be used for “issue ads” that push one point of view without naming a specific candidate.
In 2001, the Democratic Party received $63 million in soft money donations, or 53.5 percent of its total for the year, while the GOP got $72 million in soft money, which accounted for just 35.2 percent of its total income.
While it would eliminate soft money to national parties, Shays-Meehan would allow state and local parties to collect up to $10,000 in such funds from any one donor or group. The bill would also prohibit soft-money-financed issue ads 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election.
“While this legislation will clearly reorder the way in which candidates and parties finance campaigns, it’s a modest – but crucial – investment in our participatory democracy,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville. “I urge all of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to support it.”
In addition to Hoyer, Maryland supporters of the bill included Democratic Reps. Ben Cardin and Elijah Cummings of Baltimore and Republican Reps. Connie Morella of Bethesda and Wayne Gilchrest of Kennedyville. Maryland opponents to the base bill were Reps. Al Wynn, D-Largo, Robert Ehrlich, R-Timonium, and Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick.
Wynn, who sponsored one of 13 amendments under debate, said Shays-Meehan “gags free speech” by limiting prohibiting issue ads 30 days before a primary election and 60 days before a general election. He noted that soft money is often used for voter education and get-out-the-vote efforts, both of which are important for minority voters.
“Shays-Meehan handicaps political parties. It silences issue advocacy groups at the most critical period just before elections,” Wynn said.
His amendment to cap soft money contributions at $25,000 had not come up for a vote by Wednesday evening.
Critics say Shays-Meehan has large loopholes that will allow donors to bypass the ban on soft money through donations to state and local parties. John Samples, an analyst at the Cato Institute said politicians would simply find new ways to raise money.
“Politics takes money and people aren’t going to stop fighting because of this law,” Samples said.
But Morella said the bill is the best bet for slowing the “obscene amounts of money” tainting politics.
“It is now up to this body to . . . pass real reform that will bring an end to the corruption and cynicism that surrounds public service because of the obscene amounts of money, soft money, that has found its way into the political process,” Morella said.
The Senate last year passed a similar bill, sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis.
Senate leaders have said that if the House bill — named for Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass. — passes without “poison pills,” it could bypass a conference committee and go directly to the Senate floor, where it would be likely to pass. It could then be sent to President Bush, although he has not committed to signing the bill.
“We’ll have to see exactly what emerges from the House,” said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer on Tuesday, adding that the proposed legislation “partially represents the president’s view.”
If House opponents can significantly alter Shays-Meehan, however, opponents could kill or indefinitely stall the bill in a conference committee.
Paul Taylor, executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, said that while Shays-Meehan may be flawed, it’s an important step in the right direction.
“It’s the best hope in a generation and it ought to be seized,” he said.