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NEWS ANALYSIS

A Win for Campaign Finance Won't Mean Victory for Reform

March 31, 2001|JANET HOOK and DOYLE McMANUS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — In the recurring history of crusades to reform the role of money in American politics, the almost-certain victory of Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) next week will likely be remembered as a good-sized peak--but not quite a watershed.

McCain and Feingold set out to reduce the influence of big money on Congress. Instead, they succeeded only in outlawing the most egregious form of fund-raising--the unlimited amounts of "soft money" that went into the hands of powerful party barons--in exchange for allowing more "hard money" to flow directly to individual candidates.

The optimists' version of that bargain runs this way: Hard money is clean, soft money is not. Hard money comes in limited amounts from many individual donors; soft money comes in giant sums that leave candidates beholden to a few fat cats.

But even some reformers are skeptical of that logic. The skeptics include McCain and Feingold, who didn't intend to promote higher hard-money limits but accepted them as a necessary compromise.

And many of the senators who in key votes this week put the bill on track for expected passage Monday framed the issue in a different light: as a quest not for greater cleanliness but for more autonomy. The rise of soft money, they complained, put them at the mercy of big-time fund-raisers and pesky independent advocacy groups; a return to hard money might give them control of their campaigns again.

Under soft money, "candidates are no longer individuals who have any control over their destiny," said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), whose support for the McCain-Feingold bill was crucial. "They are used like puppets."

"Most candidates and public officials are mad because they don't have a voice," agreed Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). "It's not that money is corrupting; it's that the candidate's voice is out of his or her control."

Bipartisan Support Is Result of Uncertainty

Remarkably, it isn't clear whether the McCain-Feingold bill, if it becomes law, would end up giving one party a significant advantage over the other. That's one reason for its bipartisan success.

Most experts believe Republicans would benefit more because they have been more successful at raising hard money ($447 million in the last election, compared with the Democrats' $270 million). By contrast, the Democrats have drawn even with the GOP in the soft-money race ($243 million to the Republicans' $244 million in the 2000 campaign).

"If you eliminate soft money, it is the Democrats who will lose because the soft money from Hollywood can't offset the hard dollars raised from small-business owners and professional people," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). "Up until now, it's been one Barbra Streisand giving more than 5,000 small businesses that made the difference for the Democrats."

Other Republicans disagree. "I think Newt is having delusions," said GOP strategist Eddie Mahe. "This helps the Democrats because the one entity that it doesn't affect is organized labor," which through its political activities generally supports Democratic candidates and causes.

That means, Mahe said, that Democrats "don't need soft money the way we do."

But one outcome is clear: Abolishing soft money and relying entirely on hard money favors incumbents, no matter what their party. That's another reason the bill appears likely to pass with bipartisan support.

"This clearly helps all incumbents," said Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah). "If you think the present system is incumbency protection . . . look at the mathematics. You can raise hard money twice as fast as before" under the McCain-Feingold bill.

Moreover, during its two-week debate that ended Friday, the Senate tacked on several other incumbent-friendly amendments. These included rules to ensure that television stations live up to agreements to air political ads for lower rates. Another provision added protections for candidates facing millionaire challengers.

"That did a lot to assuage the fears of members on both sides of the aisle," said a Senate Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity when discussing the issue. "They may not know or care whether this is good for their party, but they know it will make it much harder for challengers to beat incumbents."

But if these changes have made the McCain-Feingold bill more palatable to many rank-and-file lawmakers, they hardly defused the angst the bill causes among leaders in both parties.

By abolishing soft money, the measure would make it harder for the leaders to demand big contributions from businesses that are subject to federal regulation, a practice some executives have long denounced as "shakedowns."

This change also would weaken the leverage the leaders enjoy when they control the biggest donations--and decide where it should be channeled.

"The leadership is apoplectic," said a Republican senator who asked not to be named when discussing colleagues. "They just got defunded."

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