Shays Facing Heat

Posted February 14, 2003 at 6:17pm

Amid serious confusion and anxiety about life under the new campaign finance law, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) is facing charges from GOP colleagues that he created a monster and does not realize the bill’s punitive impact on lawmakers’ fundraising practices.

“This is such a broad law the authors themselves don’t even know what’s in it,” said House GOP Conference Secretary John Doolittle (Calif.), an ardent opponent of Shays’ bill.

At an hour-and-a-half closed-door meeting at the recent GOP retreat at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, Shays butted heads with several GOP election lawyers who were trying to explain to lawmakers how they should and should not behave under the new campaign finance law.

Because the violations of the new law carry felony and mandatory jail-time penalties, Republican attorneys Jan Baran, Don McGahn and Ben Ginsburg explained to Members that they should err on the side of caution when asked to attend fundraising events for state and local officials because federal lawmakers are no longer able to solicit money for state and local officials under the new restrictions. During the presentation, Shays grew incensed.

“That’s when the food fight began,” said one observer of the session, which was attended by some five dozen lawmakers.

The attorneys were taking questions from lawmakers, and Shays, who was sitting toward the back of the room, jumped up and objected to the way the lawyers were describing the new law’s restrictions.

Several people who attended the meeting said Shays angrily accused the lawyers of unfairly and inaccurately characterizing the new law, and argued that Members would still be able to raise money for their governor, mayor or state legislative candidates so long as it was limited to $2,000 per individual.

The lawyers, however, shot back that the law was rather ambiguous on that point and said it was questionable whether a Member could even attend such an event, if the event is paid for with soft money.

Shays held his home state of Connecticut out as an example, noting that Nutmeg State campaign finance laws are consistent with the new federal statutes.

But many states are not subject to federal limits and it would make no sense for them to limit themselves to $2,000 contributions from individuals, his opponents argued, if they may legally accept higher contribution amounts from corporations, labor unions and individuals.

When asked about the incident, Shays acknowledged that he stood up and objected because he thought the lawyers were “exaggerating” the bill’s restrictions.

“What’s happening in our Republican Conference is that a lot is being said by people who don’t believe in the bill, who always opposed the bill,” he said. “They were exaggerating the traps significantly. I’m trying to encourage those folks to level with Members, and that wasn’t happening.”

After witnessing the exchange, one GOP lawmaker said because Connecticut’s campaign finance laws are unusually similar to federal laws, Shays does not understand the bill’s implications.

“Neither he [nor Sen. John] McCain [R-Ariz.] have a clue about this bill,” the GOP Member said. “That’s the thing that’s really galling. The law was just a vehicle for them to look good for their sought-after constituencies.”

Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), who co-sponsored the campaign finance bill with Shays, said the lawyers were repeating some of the same arguments opponents have made for years.

“It is a fact that the bill says that candidates can help state parties raise hard dollars,” Meehan said in a statement Friday. “While I wasn’t at the GOP retreat, it sounds to me like Congressman Shays was correct in his knowledge of the bill. Opponents of the bill have long used misinterpretations about what it actually did. Chris bore the brunt of that.”

Shays also countered that the lawmakers and party operatives who are complaining so bitterly now are the very same people who want the courts to strike down the law.

“The people who were describing the bill are the same ones challenging it in court,” he continued. “The people who were explaining the problems it poses are the same people trying to kill it.”

But some Republicans, nervous about unknowingly violating the new laws, believe the National Republican Congressional Committee lawyers are simply trying to make sure lawmakers do not wind up in jail.

“The reason that they are being cautious is that we can go to jail,” said Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who attended a subsequent briefing by lawyers at the NRCC last week. “I’m glad they’re being cautious. I expect these lawyers to be extra careful. I don’t expect them to walk the line. I want them well away from the line.”

Hoekstra also argued that the bill is out of Shays’ hands now and a lot of the finer points will be decided by the Federal Election Commission and the courts.

“It’s not Chris’ bill anymore,” Hoekstra said. “They may not have intended some of these things to come out the way they are, but they wrote the law and it’s some of the most ridiculous stuff I’ve ever seen.”

For instance, Hoekstra noted that he can no longer appear in a county GOP party brochure because it is funded through soft dollars.

Like the NRCC attorneys, Hoekstra also argued that the ability to help state and local candidates raise hard dollars is really not useful in Michigan.

“I don’t have any committee in my county with a federal hard-dollar campaign fund,” he explained. “We had one, but they got rid of it because it was excessive paperwork.”

Besides, he added, “If all those folks started raising hard dollars there wouldn’t be enough federal hard dollars to go around anymore.”

Doolittle was also disturbed by the briefings.

“There’s so much gray area — it’s is so confusing,” he said. “It makes you the subject of some hot-shot federal prosecutor who wants to make a name for himself. We want bright lines so we know what we can and cannot do.”

But Shays insists that at least in some states, state parties and local committees will welcome federal lawmakers’ help in raising hard dollars, and he has pledged to lead by example.

“I’m going to raise hard money for my Conference,” he vowed. “I’m going to raise all the hard money I can. I want to show that the system can work on hard money.”

After the quick explanation of what occurred at the meeting, the Connecticut Republican also took pains to stress how satisfied he feels now about how GOP leaders have treated him in the past year.

“I want to make this clear: I am a happy camper. There is no unhappiness on my part,” he said.

The upbeat attitude comes even though Shays has experienced a series of slights by his GOP colleagues since he spearheaded the discharge petition that forced the Republican leadership to take up the bill.

Just last month the GOP Steering Committee chose Rep. Tom Davis (Va.) over Shays to chair the Government Reform panel even though the Connecticut Republican was the most senior member of the committee.

Davis quickly tapped Shays as his vice chairman, but the damage had been done and Republican leaders had sent a clear message about the fate of those who support discharge petitions. In the last week, House GOP leaders selected Shays for a coveted spot on the Select Committee on Homeland Security and also named him vice chairman of the Budget Committee, an assignment he had not sought. In fact, Shays had already served 10 years on Budget.

John Feehery, spokesman to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said Shays was chosen for Budget to make sure moderates have a powerful voice in how that legislation is written.

“You want both moderate and conservative Members working together to build a consensus budget,” he said.

Shays will keep his seat on the Financial Services Committee but will take a leave of absence from Science, giving him a grand total of four committee assignments and two vice chairman slots. The heavy burden has already prompted jokes that GOP leaders are giving him a heavy workload just to make sure he doesn’t have any free time to sponsor additional reform-minded campaign legislation.

“I was talking to the Speaker and was telling him with all this work, I’m going to be a busy boy and I won’t have any time to get into trouble,” he said with a chuckle.