Campaign reform must come from voters

May 31, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- That was some political hoedown the Democrats staged here the other night to raise a record $26.5 million at one sitting to bankroll their bid to keep the White House and regain control of the House in November.

Maybe the dress-down code of blue jeans observed by President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and many of the other 13,000 guests was a cute scheme to masquerade the identities of all the fat-cats who plunked down major chunks of cash, or raised it from others for the cause. It didn't fool anybody, but perhaps it gave the attendees a down-home feeling as they nibbled on Memphis barbecue off picnic tablecloths and washed it down with brewskis.

Intentionally, the whole approach was a sharp contrast to a similar money-gouging event in black tie by the Republicans last month that raised a paltry $21.5 million, a record at the time for a single such gala. Either way, blue collar or country club, it was wretched excess.

This free-flow of campaign "soft money" -- unregulated political contributions -- did not inhibit the Democratic sponsors from vowing their unswerving commitment to banning the stuff -- sometime in the future. Ed Rendell, the Democratic national chairman, pledged that "when we win this election in November, we are committed to getting rid of soft money."

Both major-party presumptive presidential nominees are singing variations of the same lullaby. Mr. Gore said at the Democratic hoedown that campaign finance reform would be the first legislation he will send to Congress after his election. Republican Gov. George W. Bush has said he's for reform, too, provided part of it is "paycheck protection" -- empowering union members to nix use of their deductions by union bosses to support candidates they don't like.

Politics being increasingly akin to warfare these days, both sides naturally say they can't afford to engage in "unilateral disarmament" by abandoning soft money while the enemy continues to raise it.

Meanwhile, legislation to ban soft money languishes in Congress, though the House version has passed and a majority is on record for it in the Senate, though seven or eight votes short of the 60 required to halt a certain filibuster by campaign finance foes.

Polls show a clear majority of voters deplore the money excesses in politics. But this winter and spring they didn't put their votes where their mouths were, failing to support the two presidential candidates who were outspokenly for campaign finance reform, John McCain and Bill Bradley.

Terry McAuliffe, who ran the Democratic event, has no peer in fund raising, whether it's for the party or for various defense funds to pay for cleaning up Mr. Clinton's behavioral messes behind him. While the paying guests chewed on their pork ribs, Mr. McAuliffe had the menu of the tony Republican affair, which included creamy goat cheese medallion and orange meringue mirror cake, flashed on a screen.

The price for a single ticket was only $50, but those tickets accounted for only a small part of the take. Most of it came from the purchase of tables at $25,000 a pop or bundling of fat-cat contributions of as much as half a million dollars by individuals or organizations. According to the Democratic National Committee, 10 unions were among those who kicked in that amount.

These two dinners are only the latest demonstrations of how politics has become awash in money. Earlier, Governor Bush's feat of collecting $37 million before a single primary vote was cast, a figure that later ballooned to $70 million, made a mockery of the existing campaign finance laws.

Governor Bush (legally) thumbed his nose at the federal campaign subsidy given to presidential candidates who agree to contribution limits, freeing him to raise as much as he wanted. Six other Republicans who took the subsidy out of necessity were so intimidated by Governor Bush's treasury that they pulled out of the nomination race even before the voters had a say.

You would think all this would force Congress to act. But until voters start punishing legislators at the polls for failing to do so, real campaign finance reform is likely to remain a joke, and raising millions in soft money a game for political high rollers.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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