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Campaign Reform Push Hits Familiar Obstacles

Legislation: Dismay over spending, foreign donations fuels latest push. But again, broad changes seem unlikely.

November 14, 1996|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Over the years, nothing has tied Congress in knots quite like campaign finance reform.

In 1988, opposition to reform legislation was so fierce that one lawmaker had to be collared by the sergeant-at-arms and carried feet-first into the Senate chamber to force him to vote. Another stab at reform set the all-time record for failed attempts to stop a filibuster. And the one bill that made it all the way to the White House did so only because Congress knew it was destined for a presidential veto.

Now, lawmakers are about to try again.

Growing disenchantment with the current system and its role in this year's elections are giving Congress the most powerful push in decades to revamp the political money-raising system.

"This [election campaign] has shown us once again that our campaigns cost too much, they take too much time, they raise too many questions. And now is the time for bipartisan campaign finance reform legislation," President Clinton said this week. "We clearly have a unique moment of opportunity."

But lawmakers and others with a stake in the status quo already appear inclined to apply the brakes to any fundamental changes in the way politicians solicit and spend money.

Leading members of both parties are discussing options that reform advocates see as delaying tactics. Some want to appoint a study commission that could take the issue off the front burner until public passion has cooled. Some propose passage of a constitutional amendment that could take years to enact. Some suggest congressional hearings, which could drag on indefinitely.

"We need to lay out clearly what are the contours of campaign spending," says House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). "There are some areas you want to look at but you want to do it very carefully and very systematically."

"Some pretty high-ranking folks in both parties are basically trying to divert the issue by suggesting ways to solve it that won't happen," observes Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), co-sponsor of Clinton-endorsed legislation that would impose voluntary limits on campaign spending.

Indeed, campaign finance has proved remarkably resistant to change in the 22 years since the last major reform legislation was enacted.

This year's effort faces many of the same political and legal obstacles that have bedeviled campaign reformers for the last generation. There is no consensus between the parties--or even within each party--about what the problem is and what the solution should be. Moreover, Supreme Court rulings have made it virtually impossible to limit campaign spending. And incumbent politicians generally do not regard it as in their self-interest to tinker with the system that has given them power.

All that may change if recent revelations about foreign contributions to political parties become a scandal of Watergate proportions. If that happens, incumbents may feel that they will pay a political price if they do not do something to clean up the system.

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But so far, that sense of urgency has not been widespread.

"No one would ever say passing this is easy," says Ann McBride, president of Common Cause, a leading proponent of campaign finance reform. "But it would be the height of hypocrisy, after all this discussion, for Congress to come in and say: 'Just kidding!' "

The current system was established in the wake of the Watergate scandal in 1974, when Congress passed a law limiting campaign spending and requiring public disclosure of contributions. The law tried to ban corporate and union contributions, limited individual contributions to $1,000 per candidate, limited overall spending and provided public financing for presidential campaigns.

This year's legislative, legal and political developments were a parade of horrors for reformers who want to rein in campaign spending.

On the legislative front, the Senate in mid-1996 killed a bill by Feingold and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would have banned political action committees, imposed voluntary limits on campaign spending and required candidates to raise more than half their money from donors in their own states. The House failed to pass even a watered-down version.

On the legal front, the Supreme Court in June issued a landmark decision that opened the floodgates by allowing the parties to devote unlimited amounts of money to "independent expenditures"--advertising and other election-related efforts that are not coordinated with specific candidates.

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The Federal Election Commission does not yet know exactly how much the parties exploited that new avenue of political spending, but it is clear that party spending in general has skyrocketed. As of Oct. 16, the Republican Party had raised $278 million to help candidates in 1995-96, up 69% from four years earlier. The Democratic Party had raised $140 million, up 64% from 1991-92.

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