Campaign finance un-reformed Senate balks: Bipartisan proposal buried by failure to block threatened filibuster.

June 26, 1996

REMEMBER that famous handshake between President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich pledging campaign finance reform during the 104th Congress? Well, forget it. The Senate yesterday killed any prospect for action this year amid the usual vows that reform will come -- well past the November election.

Congress once again is proving it cannot deal with the tough issues. When it comes to closing military bases, putting caps on Social Security and Medicare spending or, in this instance, terminating outrageous financial practices that undermine the integrity of the political process, the legislative branch can't legislate. Its only resort is to turn eventually to commissions whose recommendations have to be voted up or down without change. That's not the way the Founding Father planned it.

Yet year after year, the financial requirements for winning and holding elective office grow larger. Year after year, reforms once enacted with high hopes become shot through with loopholes and even vehicles for greater corruption. The system grossly favors incumbents who, in turn, become addicted to constant money-grubbing for re-election.

Rep. Linda Smith, a freshman Republican from Washington state, has related how newcomers are trained from Day One to stage fund-raising events near Capitol Hill for lobbyists and advocates with thick wallets. She implied that few members of Congress would care to go home and tell their constituents about it. Her idea: impose a "check-free zone" within 60 miles of the capital, thus forcing campaigns to be more locally financed.

The bipartisan measure jettisoned yesterday would put an end to political action committees, or PACs, originally conceived as a way for small contributors to get into the political game. Instead, the PACs became condiuits for vast flows of money from businesses, unions and special interest groups. The doomed legislation also would have given political candidates some free television time and reduced postal rates in return for voluntary caps on their campaign spending. Opponents charged it would unconstitutionally infringe free speech. Others said it might be vulnerable to the various end-runs Washington's K Street lawyers are so adept at finding.

If the legislative route continues to be blocked, the only recourse may be public backlash. If more legislators like Linda Smith defy the system and proudly tell their constituents why they have done so, voters may accomplish some of what Congress can't seem to do.

Pub Date: 6/26/96

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