Campaign money reform's top foe Ky.'s McConnell is likely to block legislation again

February 18, 1997|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Few outside his home state of Kentucky know the name Mitch McConnell. To many inside Congress, though, he's a hero.

McConnell is America's foremost defender of big-money politics. For a decade, he has shrewdly, and unflinchingly, shot down attempts to change a system that has worked splendidly for himself and other officeholders.

Now the Republican senator may be about to carve the biggest notch of all into his belt. The prospects for sweeping campaign finance reform, which glowed brightly after the money-mad 1996 election, appear dead. If so, McConnell's intense behind-the-scenes efforts will have played no small part in killing it.

"More than anything else over the last two years, the dynamic has been changed by Mitch McConnell and by his just dedicated opposition to sweeping change," says David Mason of the Heritage Foundation, who supports McConnell's efforts. "It's been a huge factor."

In an interview, McConnell indicated he was willing to consider piecemeal changes, including some restriction on unlimited "soft money" donations. But as was the case last year, when he blocked reform, he says he's got enough votes to stop the comprehensive overhaul backed by President Clinton and most good-government groups, designed to limit campaign spending.

"I am confident [it] is not going to pass," says the senator, who has quietly been rallying fellow Republicans and a diverse group of interest groups behind him.

To a legion of critics, Campaign '96 was a showcase for abuses. Democrats and Republicans raised millions from wealthy individuals, corporations and unions. In the process, they trashed the spirit, if not the letter, of post-Watergate laws designed to take big money out of presidential politics. Investigators are looking into foreign attempts to buy influence at the Clinton White House. Polls show the public is fed up and that even contributors believe their cash exerts too much influence.

And yet, at a moment when cries for cleaning up the campaign finance system are louder than in years, McConnell seems to have strengthened his position. The retirements of several reform-minded Senate GOP moderates have added votes to McConnell's solid bloc of Republicans opposed to sweeping change.

After his re-election last fall, his Republican colleagues promoted McConnell to the party leadership by electing him to head their national campaign committee.

"A lot of them are very grateful that he has carried the water" on campaign finance, says Nancy Kassebaum Baker, a former Republican senator who disagrees with McConnell. "It isn't easy, and he does it very well."

McConnell, whose mastery of the money game of politics rivals Michael Jordan's magic with a basketball, doesn't buy the hand-wringing over the way elections are financed.

The system, he says, evenly but emphatically, is fine the way it is. Or, to be more precise, there's nothing wrong that couldn't be fixed by getting rid of some reforms imposed after the Watergate scandal, the last outrage big enough to generate real change.

He answers those who deplore the expanding role of money in politics by asking: How much is American democracy worth?

"I don't think we're spending too much on politics in this country," the 54-year-old senator says. "We spent more on yogurt in the last two years than we did on congressional campaigns."

Indeed, political ads represented only about 2 cents of every media ad dollar spent in the United States last year. A single company, Procter & Gamble, had an advertising budget larger than the $2.5 billion cost of the 1996 election.

McConnell would like to raise the $1,000 limit on individual contributions, "set at a time when the [Ford] Mustang cost $2,700," to around $3,000, and adjust it for inflation each year. He'd also like to stop organized labor from using union dues in campaigns. And he wants to remove the restrictions on the amount of money a party can spend on its own candidates.

As for public funding of presidential politics, he says, "I would get rid of that entirely. I think it's been a farce. I mean, you've got taxpayers' money paying for balloons and god-knows-what-all at the national convention. We've squandered an enormous amount of money, and it's had no impact on controlling spending, even assuming that was a desirable thing, which I don't think it is."

He dismisses complaints of lawmakers who say raising money takes too much time. To those who note that an average senator must collect almost $15,000 a week for six years to finance a re-election campaign, he says: "People are not spending all their time raising money. We've analyzed the Senate races. Eighty percent of the money is raised in the last two years, and it's raised by people who think they may have a tough race."

He won't even concede that the public is all that unhappy with the present state of American politics. "I think it depends on how you ask the questions," he says.

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