Is Washington ready for reform? Probably not: But here are a couple of ideas that might help.

October 31, 1995

JIM LAKE, veteran Republican presidential campaign aide turned lobbyist, pleaded guilty last week to breaking campaign finance laws. He disguised a contribution to a candidate for Congress from a corporate client in California by fake-billing it for something else. Probably goes on all the time in Washington. What makes this case newsworthy is that he got caught -- and that the political candidate he was trying to help was a liberal Mississippi Democrat.

Why was he doing that? Because the Democrat is the brother of the then Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy and the corporation needed favors or at least assistance from the Department of Agriculture. This is just one more reminder that campaign contributors, candidates, executive branch officials and lobbyist go-betweens routinely corrupt each other.

Freshmen members of the House of Representatives have been pushing their leaders to enact congressional reform measures, including limits on what lobbyists can spend. Yet these same freshmen have been more aggressive than their predecessors in fund raising. Contributions to House incumbents are up over a third in this election cycle compared to the last. Fund raising has become a billion-dollar-a-year business. In 1991-1992 the total spent on all campaigning nationwide was $3.2 billion.

It's not likely any legislative reform is going to reduce that. Businesses and interest groups have too much at stake in governmental decision-making. The environment in which crimes of the Jim Lake sort take place is, in fact, already the most reformed political system ever.

Reform laws enacted in the 1970s were meant to reduce the amount of money spent in campaigns. The centerpiece was direct payments from the federal government to candidates for president.

The "next step" of federal payments to congressional candidates is being urged by some reformers now. That would be foolish. Private contributions to presidential candidates by lobbyists, their clients and others has risen by about 25 percent in constant dollars since the federal payments started.

Meanwhile in 1992 alone taxpayers forked over $175 million. Extend that to Congress and the same thing would happen: More private money, more influence peddling, more quid pro quos -- and more drain on the Treasury.

We can, however, think of two reforms that might help. (1) Faster, more comprehensive public reporting of all campaign contributions. (2) Swifter, more severe punishment for those caught breaking the law.

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