Senate to continue hashing out Shays-Meehan; edits expected

Posted 8:58 p.m. Feb. 25

by Shaphan Marwah

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate will reconvene this week to continue debate of the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill that would ban “soft money” political contributions.

The Shays-Meehan bill passed the House on Feb. 14.

The bill restricts television campaign ads funded by corporations and unions before primaries and elections, a measure Rep. Meehan (D-Mass.) said would “close that soft money loophole that was circumventing the 1907 and 1943 (campaign finance) laws.”

The bill also implements a ban on soft money donations and raises the amount of “hard money” individuals can donate by $1,000.

While supporters of the bill celebrate it as a means to cut big-business interests out of politics, critics point to limitations on political speech the bill could create.

The proposed measures “trigger many First Amendment issues because it limits the ability of people to be heard,” said Mike Frank, a government expert from the Heritage Foundation.

The bill was given crucial momentum after the collapse of former energy giant Enron last December. The company and its employees donated $5.9 million since 1990 to politicians and political groups, with 73 percent of the contributions going to Republicans.

In the weeks before Enron filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, CEO Ken Lay contacted at least three senior White House officials to ask them for federal aid. While the Bush administration said Lay’s calls sparked no federal action, the contact raised red flags for some over undue corporate influence in politics.

“The Enron case is a classic reminder of how soft money buys access and undermines the public’s confidence in our democracy,” Meehan said in a recent press release.

The president has indicated the veto some Republicans hope for if the bill passed the Senate is not likely. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President George W. Bush will not comment on the bill until he reads a final version passed by the Senate. Fleischer has said the president will “sign a bill that improves the current system” in a press conference last week, despite several pundits’ and political figures’ contention the bill is critically flawed.

Criticism of the bill arose after the implementation date was changed to take effect after the elections this November.

“There’s an element of hypocrisy in not bringing these rule changes into effect as soon as possible,” Frank said.

Even if the bill passes the Senate, negotiations are expected to work out differences in the House and Senate versions. Talks could center on elements of the bill that restrict television advertising, which lawmakers have called unconstitutional.

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