Communications Department

Shays-Meehan Bill Derailed in U.S. House, But Supporters Vow to Try Again

Jul 14, 2001 | Free Speech Issues

WASHINGTON (July 14, 2001) — Supporters of “campaign finance reform” legislation that would restrict the rights of free speech and association of groups such as NRLC suffered a major setback in the U.S. House of Representatives on July 12 B but key lawmakers and interest groups supporting the bill are vowing to try again.

On July 12, Democratic leader Dick Gephardt (Mo.) succeeded in blocking floor action on the “reform” legislation he has long worked to enact, the Shays-Meehan bill (H.R. 2356), which is sponsored by Reps. Chris Shays (R-Ct.) and Marty Meehan (D-Ma.). Gephardt and other backers of the bill were dissatisfied with the procedures established by Republican leaders for its consideration, and they won a 228-203 procedural roll call that prevented the House from proceeding to the debate the bill itself.

Republican leaders immediately charged that Gephardt had contrived to sidetrack the bill because he feared it would be defeated on the floor by an alternative measure known as the Ney-Wynn bill, which was attracting the support of a growing number of Democrats.

For the moment, the Shays-Meehan bill is in limbo. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Il.) told the Associated Press that he has no current plans to revisit the issue. His spokesman, John Feehery, said, “This is dead. They [the sponsors] killed it.”

But a campaign to revive the measure was immediately launched by special-interest groups such as Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, and by the bill’s numerous promoters in the news media.

On July 14, the Washington Post reported that the coalition of groups supporting the bill — including Common Cause, the AARP, the Sierra Club, and the National Council of Churches B would organize “a variety of activities ranging from telephone banks to lobbying of lawmakers by their hometown business and community leaders.”

Rep. Shays insisted that the bill would eventually come to a vote. “It will happen in a nice and congenial way, or it could happen after a lot of conflict and disagreement,” he said. “But it will happen.”

However, the bill’s revival is by no means assured, partly because it appears that an increasing number of House members of both parties — under pressure from an increasingly broad array of citizen groups that oppose the bill — would rather avoid an up-or-down vote on it.

NRLC Opposes

The Shays-Meehan bill is very similar to the McCain-Feingold bill (S. 27), sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wi.), that passed by the Senate 59-41, over NRLC’s objections, on April 2. (See April NRL News, page 1.)

NRLC strongly opposes both bills, because they contain provisions that would severely restrict the right of citizen groups to communicate with the public about what their elected representatives are doing in Washington. For example, most groups would be prohibited from buying radio ads that even mention a congressman’s name for 30 days before a state’s primary election and for 60 days before a national congressional election B even if the ads merely alert citizens to an upcoming vote in Congress.

The bills would also place citizen groups and lawmakers at legal risk when they collaborate in promoting legislation to the public, by re-defining the laws that govern what is called “coordination.”

Numerous other groups also oppose the Shays-Meehan bill, including the Christian Coalition, National Rifle Association, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, ACLU, and National Education Association.

In 1999, a version of the Shays-Meehan bill passed the House 252-177, winning the support of 54 Republicans and all except 13 Democrats. However, that bill was killed in the Senate by a filibuster led by Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)

This year, the Senate passed the bill first, setting the stage for a showdown in the House. Initially, Shays-Meehan supporters were confident of victory in the House, given the large margin by which the bill passed in 1999. But many previous supporters of the measure were having second thoughts — some because of objections from groups such as NRLC, and some for other reasons.

Ney-Wynn Bill

In June, an unlikely alliance was forged between Congressman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), the pro-life chairman of the House Administration Committee, and Congressman Al Wynn (D-Md.), a prominent member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). They produced an alternative “campaign finance reform” bill (H.R. 2360), which was introduced on June 28.

NRLC did not object to the Ney-Wynn bill, and in fact urged lawmakers to adopt the measure as a substitute for the Shays-Meehan bill.

As the scheduled House vote approached, a growing number of influential groups came out in opposition to the Shays-Meehan bill and endorsed the Ney-Wynn substitute, including two major labor unions, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the National Education Association.

For weeks in advance, the House had been scheduled to vote on the issue on or about July 12. But only two days before the scheduled vote, Reps. Shays and Meehan proposed a complicated amendment that would have made 14 separate changes to their own bill, intended to hold on to the votes of certain Democratic lawmakers. None of the proposed changes would have corrected NRLC’s objections.

Republican leaders subsequently wrote up a resolution — called a “rule” — listing the amendments that could be considered on the floor. This rule provided for consideration of various amendments to the Shays-Meehan bill — including, at the end of the debate, a vote on the Ney-Wynn substitute, which if adopted would have erased the Shays-Meehan bill entirely. The rule also would have allowed Shays and Meehan to offer every one of the 14 changes they wanted, but each as a separate amendment, rather than a single package.

Supporters of the Shays-Meehan bill, led by Gephardt, Shays, and Senator McCain — who on the day of the showdown was working out of the Democratic leader’s office — said this procedure was unacceptable, since the House might reject some of the individual changes and thereby make the final bill unacceptable to some potential supporters. They said it was “unfair” to require the House to vote on each change to the bill — although they offered no convincing explanation as to why that should be considered unfair. They insisted that the House should consider all the changes in a single take-it-or-leave it package amendment (called a “managers’ amendment).

House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tx.) said that Shays’ demand was “unreasonable” and “arrogant.” After some deliberation, the Republican leadership pushed forward, forcing a vote on the rule.

Gephardt then led all House Democrats (with one exception, Rep. James Traficant of Ohio) in voting against the “rule.” In addition, Shays and 18 other Republicans joined Gephardt in voting against the rule, causing its defeat, 228-203.

Since the House cannot consider a bill without first approving a rule governing amendments, the defeat of the rule had the effect of preventing further House action on the legislation, at least for a time.

The 19 Republicans who voted with Gephardt against their leadership’s rules resolution were Bass (NH), Boehlert (NY), Castle (De.), Ganske (Iowa), Graham (SC), Houghton (NY), Johnson (Ct.), Leach (Iowa), LoBiondo (NJ), Morella (Md.), Petri (Wi.), Roukema (NJ), Scarborough (Fl.), Shays (Ct.), Simmons (Ct.), Souder (In.), Upton (Mi.), Wamp (Tn.), and Wolf (Va.). Most but not all of these Republicans support the Shays-Meehan bill.

Republicans Blame Gephardt

Republican leaders immediately suggested that Gephardt had used a pretext to head off floor debate on the bill because he realized that a majority was shifting in favor of the Ney-Wynn substitute — adoption of which would be a devastating setback for backers of speech-restrictive “reform.”

“It’s a shame Dick Gephardt’s presidential ambitions are a higher priority than his commitment to a real debate on campaign finance reform,” said Ney. “Just as Shays-Meehan would ‘gag’ the American people, they have now gagged the Congress from debating campaign finance reform.”

In a subsequent memo, Hastert spokesman John Feehery said, “Gephardt’s closest allies, Big Labor and the Black Caucus, hated the bill. If he could somehow show that he was for reform and blame Republicans for killing it, he would. Killing the rule gave him the perfect out.”

Gephardt, Meehan, and Shays disputed this interpretation, saying that they expected a close vote but still believed that they could defeat the Ney-Wynn substitute. Gephardt urged that Hastert reschedule the debate under a “fair” rule, but Hastert said the House now has more pressing priorities.

Gephardt said that if Hastert does not re-schedule Shays-Meehan bill for floor action, he may initiate a “discharge petition.” Under this procedure, a bill can be forced to the House floor if a majority of House members — 218 — put their names on a formal document demanding it.

However, NRLC Legislative Director Douglas Johnson said that NRLC would work with other groups to urge House members not to sign a discharge petition, and he predicted that Gephardt would find that some past supporters of the Shays-Meehan bill may no longer be eager to force action on the measure.

“The Ney-Wynn bill was steadily gaining support, and the vote on that alternative measure would have been close,” Johnson said. “Some pro-life lawmakers who voted for the Shays-Meehan bill in 1999 were prepared to vote against the bill this time, partly because of the many communications they received from pro-life constituents. Furthermore, in recent days, the Shays-Meehan bill has come under fire from some large labor unions that work closely with many Democrats, and many members of the Black Caucus and the Hispanic Caucus would rather see it die.”

Johnson cautioned, however, that special-interest lobbies such as Common Cause and the League of Women Voters — well funded by wealthy foundations and big donors — would continue to pressure lawmakers to pass the Shays-Meehan bill.

Johnson added, “Newspaper editorial boards and the news media in general will continue to propagandize for this bill, so it is important that House members also continue to hear from citizens who want to preserve free speech about members of Congress, candidates, and public issues.”

Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins, president of the League of Women Voters, which claims 1,000 affiliates, said, “We will be sending out action alerts to all of our leagues. We can apply pressure in every congressional district.”

In recent months, both sides focused much of their attention on the 31 Republican House members who were elected in the 2000 election or in more recent special elections. During last year’s campaigns, Senator McCain B then at the height of his media-driven celebrity B campaigned for many of these Republicans, and in recent weeks he vigorously lobbied the Republican freshmen in favor of the Shays-Meehan bill and against the Ney-Wynn substitute.

However, so far only two of the Republican freshman have co-sponsored the Shays-Meehan bill (Reps. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Rob Simmons of Connecticut), and most of the others have indicated a preference for the Ney-Wynn bill.

Categories: Free Speech Issues