'Keating Five' scandal fails to spark campaign reforms

March 03, 1991|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Pundits once billed the Keating scandal as a kind of electroshock therapy for the U.S. Senate -- something that would force chastened lawmakers to reform the campaign finance process.

By all appearances, the pundits are wrong again.

The charges against the "Keating Five" senators were grave -- selling their influence with federal regulators to a failing savings and loan operator, Charles H. Keating Jr., in exchange for large campaign contributions.

Nevertheless, four of them escaped with what one dissatisfied senator termed a "tap on the pinky." Only Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif., faced the prospect of disciplinary action by the full Senate.

The Senate ethics committee's decision -- buried amid news of Iraq's capitulation in the Persian Gulf war -- symbolized to some the diminished significance of the Keating Five affair in the long-running struggle to change the way campaign dollars are raised and spent.

"It may be the most inherently corrupting process that any member of Congress engages in," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the self-styled citizens' lobby, Common Cause.

Few lawmakers appear inclined to disagree; there is near-unanimity on the question of whether to overhaul the hodgepodge of rules and regulations that governs the financing of congressional campaigns. Yet the debate over how to reform that system remains mired in partisan and philosophical differences -- despite the Keating saga.

"My impression is that the experience will be interpreted by each side in the way it chooses to advance its own arguments as the campaign finance debate unfolds," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

"Clearly, Democrats want to say that what these people did was not so unusual, and that it's the system that needs fixing -- and needs fixing with the Democratic plan," said McConnell.

In the Keating scandal, both sides find ammunition with which to buttress their respective positions.

Democrats contend that the breakneck pursuit of campaign dollars, abetted by the spiraling costs of campaigns, inevitably puts unwitting lawmakers into compromising positions -- panning for dollars wherever they can be found.

"When you spend as much time raising money as many of us are forced to do, you're bound to run into problems," said Sen. David L. Boren D-Okla., one of his party's point men on the campaign finance issue. "So many of us look at our colleagues and their dealings with Mr. Keating and say, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' "

Thus, Democrats continue to advocate spending limits, enforced with the promise of subsidized mailings and free television time to those who obey them.

Republicans, however, argue that frozen spending levels would cement in place the built-in advantages incumbents enjoy over challengers -- and, by extension, the Democratic legislative majority. They, in turn, contend that the problem lies with tainted money -- political action committees, out-of-state contributions and so-called "soft money" spent by organizations on behalf of candidates.

Much of the Keating affair cash transactions involved such unregulated soft-money expenditures -- for example, money raised by Mr. Cranston from Mr. Keating used for voter education groups. But PAC and soft-money expenditures are particular favorites of incumbents, who revel in the free-flow of dollars tumbling from Washington fund-raisers.

Some Republican lawmakers are wary of surrendering this advantage to challengers. Democrats, however, appear especially reluctant to do so and threaten their majority status.

At first glance, then, it would seem that the long-running investigation into the Keating scandal may have little effect on the even longer-running debate over campaign finance reform.

Last year, both the House and the Senate passed separate campaign finance bills, but the chambers did not even bother to try to resolve the differences between the two in a House-Senate conference.

Both were essentially Democratic documents adopted over GOP protests that faced certain veto at the White House.

And yet, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle voice hopes that the 102nd Congress could make greater headway on the issue than did the 101st.

For one thing, Democrats have launched an early push for a new campaign finance bill, well before the new Congress' legislative docket has been overloaded with other matters.

"It's one of our top priorities," promised Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., meanwhile, appears willing to explore options heretofore considered off-limits by Republicans, including some flexible spending limits.

"I think there is the start of a coming together," said Sen. Warren B. Rudman, R-N.H., vice chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee. "This whole Keating experience has been very sobering for everyone."

But the most signal difference between this year's efforts and those of last year may be the degree of public attention thrown on the campaign finance debate.

"If one good thing came from the 14 months of Keating investigation, it's that it educated the public on an aspect of being a United States senator -- and that is the necessity to raise funds for re-election," said Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark., a member of the ethics panel.

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