Keep Reform Alive

Dennis Hastert earned his bones with the right wing of the GOP when he maneuvered to bury the campaign finance reform bill. The House speaker usually stays above the fray and lets Majority Whip Tom DeLay and Majority Leader Dick Armey do the dirty work, but this time he showed up for the fight. That shows how important Republicans think it is to crush this movement for campaign finance reform and keep unregulated "soft money" flowing.

In this case, the House Rules Committee had rigged the rule for floor consideration of the Shays-Meehan bill so that compromises accepted by Reps. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., and Christopher Shays, R-Conn., would have to be voted on in 14 separate amendments, rather than as one package. Opponents of the bill were hoping that by scuttling some of the amendments, they might split the bipartisan reform coalition.

After negotiations with Hastert broke down, Shays, Meehan and Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt had little choice but oppose the rule, which was defeated 228 to 203. Seeking to put the best face on this rejection of their own leadership, conservative Republicans gloated that the bill's sponsors had stopped their own bill from being brought up for debate.

Hastert cast doubt on the sincerity of Gephardt's support for reform, saying "He doesn't want results. He'd rather have the issue for a campaign issue." But reform advocates spotted the real rats in the persons of DeLay, Armey and Hastert.

Make no mistake: Plenty of Democrats would be pleased to see the reformers go away. They got elected under the current corrupt system and they would rather live with the beast they know than create another beast with a new set of problems. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus were particularly concerned that the loss of soft money would hamper get-out-the-vote efforts in minority communities. But in the July 12 vote they sided with the angels, even if some hoped that the rule squabble would stave off reform for this session.

Ironically, it was far from certain that the reformers would have won if the bill had come up for a vote. But enough doubters were disgusted with the leadership's power play that they sided with the reformers to reject the rule.

The procedural maneuver showed that the last thing the Republican leadership wants is a truly bipartisan bill, like the one John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., had crafted in the Senate and brought over to Shays and Meehan.

Democrats should maintain a coalition with the 19 "moderate" Republicans who bucked their party on the rule vote. They should proceed with a petition to force the bill onto the House floor for a vote. Threats of discharge petitions were needed in 1998 and 1999 to force votes on similar bills which passed the House. Those bills died in the Senate.

If Hastert thinks Gephardt and the D's really don't want to see soft money curtailed, he should call their bluff and sign the discharge petition himself.

As we've said before, the congressional campaign reform bill is a modest effort to curtail some of the worst excesses of political campaigns. Real reform requires some sort of public financing, and that action is in the states (see "States Lead the Way" on page 19).

In the meantime, it is up to you to see that this modest reform doesn't die. Tell your representative to sign the petition to discharge the Shays-Meehan bill for a House vote. (Try 1-800-393-1082, and also note your opposition to "Fast Track" consideration of trade bills.) If the toll-free number doesn't work, the regular Capitol switchboard number is 202-224-3121.

Hastert's shenanigans are only another symptom of the corruption that feeds a cynical view of politics. The New York Times, after six months of investigation that involved 24 reporters and more than 300 interviews in 43 countries, came up with its own exposé on the Florida election debacle, published July 15. The newspaper found that the Republicans pressed for lenient standards on late-arriving overseas ballots from the military, which they presumed to be predominantly pro-Bush, while insisting on enforcing the letter of the law to reject absentee ballots from pro-Gore counties. The Times found that at least 680 questionable ballots were counted that should have been rejected under Florida's election law.

The Times found ballots were accepted without postmarks, with post-election postmarks, without witness signatures, with postmarks from towns and cities within the US and even from voters who voted twice. All would have been disqualified had the state's election laws been enforced. That was the case when hundreds of ballots from pro-Gore counties, including some that were postmarked well before Election Day, were rejected. The Times couldn't find proof of fraud, but noted that 17% of military ballots arrived without postmarks, despite regulations that military mail be postmarked. Reporters also found military personnel who admitted they voted after the election, although many of those ballots apparently were rejected.

The newspaper also reported that Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a co-chairman of the Bush campaign, allowed "veteran Republican political consultants" to set up a "war room" in her offices from which they "helped shape the post-election instructions (from Harris) to county canvassing boards." Among those instructions were the requirements for counting overseas ballots.

Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., chairman of the personnel subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, strong-armed the Pentagon into handing over phone numbers or e-mail addresses of a number of service men and women whose absentee ballots had been disqualified. The information was used to put service members in contact with Florida Republicans who were organizing a public relations campaign to persuade counties to reconsider rejected ballots. Democrats charged that was a misuse of the subcommittee's resources.

Based on statistical models, the Times estimated the Bush lead in Florida would have been reduced from the official count of 537 to approximately 245 votes if questionable overseas votes had been thrown out.

The conservative-dominated media, which has been anxious to put the election behind us ever since the US Supreme Court stopped the recount and crowned W as president, played down the Times' report. It failed to turn up a "smoking gun" such as 600 uncounted Gore votes in Jeb's garage, so why the bother? But Robert Parry wrote in "The Media Is the Mess" July 17 on Consortiumnews.com that the Times' finding, combined with analyses of questionable Florida ballots, still points to a likely Gore win in the state if a statewide recount had been conducted and the flawed overseas ballots had been excluded.

The Miami Herald and USA Today reported that Gore registered a net gain of 682 if so-called "overvotes" had been checked by hand. That number alone would be more than enough to erase Bush's 537-vote margin, but Gore also would have won by 242 if ballots with multiple indentations -- indicating a malfunctioning machine -- were counted. Gore's winning margin would have swelled to 332 if ballots with indentations only for president were counted. If all indented ballots were thrown out, however, Bush would have won by margins of 407 or 152, depending on whether ballots with hanging chads or only fully punched through chads were counted, the newspapers reported.

If the faulty overseas votes reported by the Times were disqualified -- trimming Bush's lead to 245 votes -- Gore would have won under three of the four standards for counting ballots, Parry noted.

Additionally, USA Today reported that Gore lost about 15,000 to 25,000 votes from ballot errors that resulted from confusing ballot designs in some counties, and the US Civil Rights Commission found that thousands of Florida voters, mainly blacks, were improperly excluded from voter rolls and were prevented from voting. Still, Gore won the national vote by more than half a million votes, which George W. Bush has translated into a mandate for conservative initiatives.

In sum, last year's election can only be put behind us if we are willing to accept that democracy was stolen from us. -- JMC

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