WASHINGTON — Three political fund-raising scandals. Two maverick presidential campaigns. One White House veto. And more than a decade of frustration, reversals and dashed hopes.
That's what it has taken for supporters of campaign finance reform to reach a House vote expected today that may constitute their best chance yet to force their vision into law.
In their decade-plus of struggle, reformers have been compelled to ruthlessly narrow their aims. Their bills once sought to comprehensively reduce the influence of money in politics. Now the reformers have pared back to a single goal: blocking the flow of unlimited big money contributions into political campaigns.
Even if they push their current bill into law, that may not reduce the amount of money spent on politics, supporters acknowledge. But the legislation would severely curtail the system of loosely unregulated "soft money" financing that has become the fastest-growing source of money in politics and threatened to swamp the fund-raising limits imposed after the Watergate scandal.
"Obviously, when supporters say this is going to get money out of politics, that's hype," said Harvard University lecturer Michael Waldman, who oversaw the campaign finance issue for President Clinton. "But this is real reform. It will at least for a few elections shut down the most egregious features of the current system. The most fundamental thing this would do is restore the idea that there are some limits."
And that alone could change the way campaigns look in the next few years, though perhaps not only in ways that reform advocates predict. The bill's critics believe that its provisions targeting independent groups--such as restrictions on the airing of political ads funded by unions or corporations--are much less likely to survive judicial challenges than those affecting political parties. That could produce a system where interest groups have more freedom to spend and shape the campaign dialogue than candidates and parties.
The impending House vote stands as the latest collision of the two forces that have shaped the debate over campaign finance reform for more than a decade. On one side has been the embedded reluctance of many lawmakers to change fund-raising rules that they believe have helped them win their seats. On the other has been a succession of money scandals and reform movements that have generated public pressure for change.
"One of the constants here has been the problem keeps getting worse and the national support keeps getting bigger and we [reform advocates] never go away," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, one of the groups pressing for reform.
The result has been a series of legislative showdowns in which Congress has taken up the reform banner, fought to stalemate, set the issue aside and then been forced to begin the process again after a new spike of public outrage.
Just since 1990, the House has passed reform bills five times and the Senate four times (while filibusters thwarted Senate action in four other years). Yet through all that, no bill has become law.
Lawmakers enacted the last major change in the campaign finance laws after Watergate in 1974, creating the modern system of contribution limits and public financing for presidential general elections.
As loopholes emerged in that system, the first proposals to further tighten the flow of money into campaigns surfaced in the mid-1980s. But it wasn't until the early 1990s that the effort took off.
Scandal, as it would repeatedly, provided a key boost. Controversy surrounding the efforts of five senators on behalf of failed savings and loan tycoon Charles H. Keating encouraged Democrats (who then controlled the House and Senate) to pass sweeping campaign finance legislation in 1990 and 1992. But internal disagreements killed the first bill and then-President Bush, as the legislators expected, vetoed the second.
The drive was revived after the 1992 election, when Ross Perot's strong third-party showing demonstrated a substantial constituency for reform. But congressional Democratic leaders, who had eagerly passed reform legislation under a president they knew would veto the bill, hesitated to do so under Clinton, who had pledged to sign it.
Though bills passed both chambers, House Democratic leaders refused to reconcile their differences with the Senate through late 1994, effectively killing the legislation. Clinton had labeled reform one of his top goals but failed to intervene as the Democrats interred it.
The reform effort appeared to die when Republicans, generally skeptical of the idea, seized control of Congress in 1995. But scandal again revived it in 1997, when outrage over Clinton's 1996 reelection fund-raising tactics spurred a new push led by Sens. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), who embraced the reform cause after being tainted as one of the senators linked to Keating.