WASHINGTON — At a time when a polarized Congress has deadlocked over an array of issues, it has now accomplished what many thought impossible: voting to change the campaign finance rules that helped each of its members get elected.
Final passage Wednesday of the first significant campaign reform bill in a generation resulted from a confluence of forces over the last 10 years that made it increasingly difficult for politicians to defend the status quo--and increasingly attractive for them to accept an overhaul.
Recurring scandals capped by the collapse of the Enron Corp. eroded political support for the current campaign finance system--even by President Bush, one of its most skilled practitioners.
But the reformers' road to victory also was paved with compromises that made the measure an easier pill for other lawmakers to swallow. Reformers jettisoned their most far-reaching aims, such as public financing of campaigns. And the final bill included provisions that give incumbents new advantages over challengers.
No Clear Advantage for Either Side
Another key to the bill's passage after years of effort by its backers is that it remains unclear which party will benefit the most. If either party clearly stood to gain a decisive advantage, it probably would not have passed.
"If anyone tells you they know how this plays out, they don't know what they are talking about," said Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio).
The bill's proponents see its passage as a triumph of grass-roots political pressure over the resistance of power brokers.
"This is a vindication of the view that when the public really wants something, it will happen," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).
But the bill's critics say it is a triumph of a media elite obsessed with the issue, while other Americans care little.
"Editorial boards around the country fanned the flames for over a decade," said Ed Gillespie, a lobbyist and former campaign advisor to Bush.
Like it or loathe it, the campaign finance bill is a major accomplishment for a Congress that has been prone to gridlock. Energy legislation is in danger of dying in the Senate--or emerging stripped of its major initiatives. It took lawmakers six months to pass a three-month extension of unemployment benefits, usually a routine measure during a recession. The House and Senate are at loggerheads over this year's budget, and Bush's hopes of passing additional tax cuts are essentially dead on arrival.
The current campaign finance bill passed where others failed in part because it is far more limited in scope. Bills in the early 1990s called for voluntary spending limits for congressional campaigns, limits on political action committees and a ban on unlimited campaign contributions to political parties known as soft money. The bill that cleared Congress does little more than prohibit soft money--a shrewd retreat, said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the bill's most vocal foe, because it forced reform critics to defend the most problematic part of the campaign system.
The bill has been propelled by a stream of political scandals that ensnared large contributors, from the savings and loan scandal of the late 1980s to the revelations about President Clinton's fund-raising techniques in his 1996 reelection campaign to the current controversy over the political influence of Enron.
In 2000 Election, Voters Took Notice
Although voters have often seemed indifferent to the issue, the 2000 election suggested otherwise. Several Senate Democrats who defeated incumbent Republicans credited their victories, in part, to their support for campaign reform. The potential of the issue was personified by the surprisingly strong showing of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in his fight against Bush for the 2000 GOP nomination.
Perhaps the most striking sign of how the political calculus has shifted in favor of reform is Bush's decision to sign a bill that he called "unilateral disarmament" in the 2000 campaign. The absence of opposition from Bush, McConnell said, was crucial to the bill's success.
The irony that Bush will be the one to sign McCain's bill was not lost on Marshall Wittmann, an analyst at the Hudson Institute who supported McCain's presidential bid.
"Deep down, what is most striking is that we reach the end of the road and a Republican president is going to sign it," Wittmann said.
One possible reason, he added, is that many Republicans "understand that they have an Achilles' heel: their relationship with big money."
It is also striking that Congress would pass the bill despite the uncertainty about how it will affect the balance of power between the parties.
Many Republicans believe the new law would play to their party's fund-raising strengths. But the GOP has led the charge against it, with House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) warning earlier this year that its enactment would cost his party control of the House.