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It’s not often that members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) side with Republicans to derail legislation near and dear to Democratic hearts. Yet that’s exactly what happened when Reps. Robert Ney (R-Ohio) and CBC member Albert Wynn (D-Md.) formed an alliance this past summer to co-sponsor rival campaign finance reform legislation.
There was nothing underhanded in the way Ney wooed Wynn. As in any successful romance, he listened, he consulted, and he let the black legislator know his feelings mattered. It was a win-Wynn situation that gives other minority lawmakers the opportunity to rethink their positions and to possibly leave the Shays-Meehan bill at the altar like a jilted bride.
“Soft money” is at the core of the conflict between those for and against campaign finance reform. The proposed Shays-Meehan bill would ban soft money or unlimited contributions to the national parties’ coffers that are often used for voter mobilization and advertising. It would keep the $1,000 limit on “hard money” contributions to House candidates, but increase contributions to Senate and presidential candidates to $2,000.
The proposed Ney-Wynn bill caps soft money contributions to national party committees at $75,000 and does not change the current unlimited fund-raising for state parties or $1,000 hard money limit.
Some CBC members, like Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), passionately believe a campaign fund-raising overhaul is long overdue, but he doesn’t support Ney-Wynn. Realizing that certain groups have been left out of the political system because of lack of funds, Lewis does call for a new process. “I think we have to go back to old-fashioned political campaigning,” says Lewis, who believes the Shays-Meehan bill helps to accomplish this by banning excessive contributions. “Use radio and television, yes, but we’ve also got to wear out some shoe leather and knock on some doors.”
Wynn is not about to knock John Lewis, who many view as a national hero. He does have this to say, however: “Voter registration and mobilization is not a chicken dinner operation. You’ve got to have some serious resources.” Modern campaigns require office space, phone banks, computer equipment, lists, none of which is free. An outright ban “would be detrimental to the goal of maximizing the African American vote,” adds Wynn.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. Both House Speaker Dennis Hastert and President George W. Bush have made no secret of their distaste for campaign is finance reform. But Democrats are not going away quietly. Lewis, Reps. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.), and John Conyers (D-Mich.) have sent out a letter to their fellow CBCers, imploring them to vote for Shays-Meehan.
Either way, says Wynn, people now look at the CBC differently. “We got a lot more consideration from the Shays-Meehan Coalition, and, the Democratic leadership, than we did when we were taken for granted on this issue.”