More window-dressing on campaign-finance reform

March 24, 1997|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Like most politicians, presidents can be shameless in their exploitation of other people. President Clinton provided an example in designating Walter F. Mondale and Nancy Kassebaum-Baker to lead a ''crusade'' for campaign-finance reform.

Both the former vice president, a Democrat, and the former senator from Kansas, a Republican, apparently have completed their public service with shining reputations. As Vice President Gore said in announcing the appointments, they are ''two of America's leading public citizens.''

The White House wants to use their good names to try to put a better face on the president's image on the campaign fund-raising issue? It is, as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott put it, ''another effort to distract attention from all the problems that they're having to deal with.''

It is hard to see what the two can do to educate the public and spur Congress to campaign-finance reform. Mr. Mondale ran for president in 1984 and served as ambassador to Japan in President Clinton's first term, but he is hardly an influential figure with the electorate. Ms. Kassebaum-Baker -- she recently married former Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee -- was a respected senator but never a household name outside the political community.

But the White House is so clearly on the defensive that just identifying itself with good guys seems to be shrewd public relations. The same can be said of Mr. Clinton's repeated declarations that he supports the McCain-Feingold reform bill languishing in the Senate.

That is not the same thing as making a serious effort to write new legislation regulating political spending. If either the White House or the Republican leaders in Congress were serious about reform, they would choose some negotiators and sit them down to negotiate the terms one by one.

Probably not even the sponsors -- Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin -- believe their bill can be passed intact. The situation requires trade-offs. The Republicans are not going to sacrifice their advantage in raising ''soft money'' from corporate contributors without a corresponding sacrifice by the Democrats in raising similar money from labor unions.

A pronounced inertia

That is the core of the problem. The current system gives some advantages to Republicans, some to Democrats and many to incumbents of both parties. The unsurprising result is a pronounced inertia against change.

There has been remarkably little public pressure for change. Polls show that voters believe the current system is corrupt but have no confidence that the politicians can devise a new one that cannot be similarly corrupted -- just as the post-Watergate reforms enacted in 1974 began to fall apart as soon as 1980.

The White House's announced purpose in seeking the help of Mr. Mondale and Ms. Kassebaum-Baker is to build that pressure. But they could expect precious little help from any of the %J constituencies on which they might be expected to rely. Except for Common Cause, most of the public lobbies operating here have a stake in maintaining at least those features of the present system that allow them to exert their own influence. There is, in short, no one speaking for the electorate at large.

There is no mystery about what needs to be done. The ''soft

money'' loophole needs to be closed. Candidates need to be given incentives -- cheap television time, for example -- if they agree to limit their spending. The unrealistic and outdated limits on individual contributions need to be raised. There should be more timely disclosure and in particular more timely enforcement of the rules. The role of political-action committees should be reduced.

Fritz Mondale and Nancy Kassebaum-Baker are the kind of people who could make such a case effectively. But will Mr. Clinton and the Republican leaders in Congress bargain

seriously?

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

Pub Date: 3/24/97

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