It turns out that this, too, is no time for serious campaign-finance reform

February 17, 1997|By JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- One day Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., announces plans to hire a staff of 80 to investigate fund-raising by the Democratic National Committee. Then the committee votes 52 subpoenas. And we learn that the Justice Department has 25 lawyers working on the same question.

In the House, another Republican-led investigation headed by Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana also begins issuing subpoenas. And the Washington Post tells us that the Justice Department is looking into the possibility that China may have steered some contributions to the Clinton-Gore campaign last year. The White House says the matter deserves a thorough investigation -- the same response it offered to earlier disclosures about money from Indonesia and Taiwan that may have been funneled into the 1996 campaign.

Thus, the prospect is for long months of contentious examinations of the way President Clinton and his advisers financed his re-election campaign. That means, in turn, that there is no realistic chance of Congress approving campaign-finance reform legislation until those investigations run their course.

In theory, there isn't any reason Congress could not proceed. Whatever the excesses of the Democrats last year, everyone already knows the principal flaws in the present system -- the extravagant spending on television advertising, the unrestricted ''soft money'' contributions and the lack of timely disclosure of abuses or an effective enforcement mechanism to deal with them. If the politicians wanted to fix things, they know what to do.

But institutional resistance to reform grips those who have used the present system to get where they are today. It would be unnatural for any politician voluntarily to deny himself the advantages of incumbency.

Conventional wisdom, however, holds that the system is now so rotten that the time is ripe for reform. Both the president and Republican leaders of Congress are being chastised for failing to include the issue among those on which they are agreed in principle and ready to negotiate.

The quiet voters

But why should the Republicans want to reform the system when it appears -- for the moment, at least -- that the Democrats are the ones who have abused the present one most egregiously? Polls suggest that the voters are not demanding such reform. The public attitude seems to be that the present system is corrupt but that any new system is also likely to be

corrupted very quickly. And, in any case, the issue does not touch the lives of Americans as directly as, for example, the economy or the public school system.

Thus, in political terms, the Republicans have no reason to rush to some compromise on campaign-finance reform. Given all these investigations, the Democrats are hardly in a position to seize the high ground.

President Clinton tried to do that by giving campaign reform some attention in his State of the Union address earlier this month. But his pro forma endorsement of the McCain-Feingold bill was far short of a promise to begin serious point-by-point negotiations to write a bill.

The Republicans may be subjected to criticism from those who recall Speaker Newt Gingrich's handshake with Mr. Clinton at that New Hampshire town meeting in 1995. That photo opportunity raised entirely unrealistic expectations that a complex issue could be resolved with a public gesture.

But the Republicans can argue with some validity that it would be foolhardy to write new regulations for financing campaigns until it is clear how the existing system has been abused. We do know that the amounts raised in 1996 were grotesque and there is strong evidence to suggest there was some dirty money involved as well as poor judgment on the part of the White House and Democratic National Committee.

Most of us may think that campaign-finance reform is an idea whose time came a long time ago. But we are going to have to wait until the politicians become convinced there is no longer any excuse for inaction.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 2/17/97

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