Two Examples Of Political Courage On Capitol Hill

Posted: September 13, 1999

WASHINGTON — You might not have caught the Shays-Meehan show. It's mainly a Washington thing.

But it's a heartening reminder that there are good, hard-working, caring people who got into politics to make the world a better place.

Christopher Shays is a staunchly Republican congressman from Connecticut. Martin Meehan is a staunchly Democratic congressman from Massachusetts. They respect each other. They like each other and work together. They fall on their swords together over money.

The two men think there's too much money in politics. They believe the pursuit of big bucks to win an election is corrupting, that it's not unconstitutional to restrict how much money individuals may give to a politician and that "soft money" (the big, unregulated checks written to the political parties) should be banned. In 1996. there was $262 million spent in soft money; next year, it is expected to total between $500 million and $700 million.

Shays and Meehan are bold. They are outspoken. They want to close the monster loopholes in the campaign finance laws. They are not popular with their peers.

Many of their colleagues in Congress argue that it would be a violation of free speech to further restrict the right of Americans to give money to political campaigns. Many want limitless giving, even if that would mean the richest Americans would have carte blanche to exert influence over politicians.

Shays and Meehan are the Feingold and McCain of the House. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., almost lost his re-election bid because he restricted his campaign donations, and Sen. John McCain, R- Ariz., is building his presidential bid around campaign finance reform. They have their own version of the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill and have been promised a Senate vote on it this fall.

If you like drama, tune in for that one. It will be one of those profiles-in-courage moments on Capitol Hill.

Even though on the face of it, the topic of "campaign finance reform" is not sexy, it's fascinating for what it says about our system. If you have $250,000 to give to a political party, you will be even more powerful. If you have the money to host a big fund-raiser for a candidate, you will get special access.

Meehan says that all you have to do to believe in the need for campaign finance reform is look at how the National Rifle Association gets its way on Capitol Hill year after year despite what the polls say. Americans are uncomfortable with unrestricted gun sales; the NRA gives a lot of money to keep new restrictions at bay.

Shays says all you have to do is look at tobacco to believe in the need for campaign finance reform. The industry pumped $30 million into political campaigns and new taxes on tobacco evaporated like smoke.

Neither man is criticizing Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who is raising millions of dollars every week from contributions that average $500 given by thousands of "real people." That, they agree, is admirable.

But Meehan is disheartened that Bush is going to chuck federal matching money in return for raising as much money as he wants. And for the second time, Steve Forbes is going to disdain federal money so he can spend as much of his own money as he wants.

Meehan was upset with the fund-raising scandals of the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign. He says he's sorry that because of those scandals, Clinton doesn't have credibility with the American people on the issue of campaign finance reform. Meehan also says he does not really blame Clinton because, without raising millions of dollars, the president wouldn't have been elected again, the first Democrat since FDR to win a second term.

For his part, Shays is upset with the leadership of his party, which strenuously opposes campaign finance reform. Senate GOP leader Trent Lott calls big money "the American way." Shays is all but shunned by some Republicans now.

But Shays and Meehan refuse to give up. They won a hard-fought vote a year ago, pushing their bill through to passage only to see the issue filibustered to death in the Senate. This year, they're trying again, talking to anyone who wants to hear them, trying to convince their fellow legislators that a vote for campaign finance reform is a vote to be proud of, that not having to raise millions of dollars to run for national office would bring more gifted people into politics.

Ann McFeatters is Washington bureau chief of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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