Don't go soft on soft money reforms

July 07, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Now that the initial euphoria has passed over the enactment of the first modest campaign finance reform in 21 years, the key question is whether it's the first step toward more significant advances, or an excuse for ignoring further reform.

Congress' agreement to require certain tax-exempt groups under Section 527 of the tax code to disclose political expenditures made, and the hitherto-secret names of individuals who provide the money for them, is being hailed as a breakthrough. But it could be just the opposite.

Republican Sen. John McCain, co-sponsor of the more significant bill to ban all unregulated (soft money) contributions, has hailed the vote on "527" groups "a seminal day in our battle to reform our electoral system." But it may prove to be no more than effective political cover for the majority in his party that wants no more reform.

Republicans who voted for the action against the tax-exempt groups, some of whom are up for reelection in November, will be able to use their votes to claim they are reformers while continuing to block the push for prohibiting soft money, the use of which has made a mockery of the last serious limitations on campaign money, after the Watergate scandal.

Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, the prime opponent of reform in this area, bought into the notion of having fellow Republicans swallow the 527 legislation as a cover, specifically saying he didn't think "this is a spear worth falling on," while voting against it himself, arguing that forcing disclosure was unconstitutional.

On the soft-money ban proposed by Mr. McCain and Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold, which last fall fell several votes short of the 60 Senate votes needed to block a GOP filibuster, Mr. McConnell continues to reject reconsideration this year. So the question now is whether Mr. McCain will try to force another vote, hoping to capitalize on the 527 vote and a growing clamor for campaign finance reform.

Before the 527 vote, which Mr. McConnell originally sought to block, he offered a deal; he would bring it up if the proponents of McCain-Feingold agreed that no other campaign finance reform would be pressed this year. Mr. McCain flatly refused, raising hopes among the reformers that he will in fact fight to get another vote on the soft-money ban this year. But he says he hasn't decided one way or the other.

The prohibition has already been voted in a bipartisan House bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Christopher Shays and Democratic Rep. Martin Meehan, so the ball is in the Senate's court.

On two separate Senate votes in October, 55 senators supported banning soft money on one or the other vote. Proponents contend there now are 57 senators who have expressed in some way support for banning soft money, and the hope is that the other three needed may be found among several Republican senators seeking reelection in November. These include Spencer Abraham in Michigan, William Roth in Delaware, Mike DeWine in Ohio, John Ashcroft in Missouri and Conrad Burns in Montana.

Scott Harshbarger, president of Common Cause, contends that the 527 vote was significant because it demonstrated that when a clear campaign abuse is recognized and a bipartisan effort can come together to eliminate it, politicians who may never have voted for campaign finance reform can be moved to support it.

This development, he says, makes him believe "the soft-money piece is do-able." The Republican leaders who joined in the effort to force disclosure of 527 contributions and donors, he says, should be praised and urged to take the larger step to ban soft money.

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, another reform group, calls the 527 vote "the first crack in the opposition" demonstrating that anti-reformers no longer hold a hammerlock on change. Some no doubt will use the vote as cover to justify their opposition to the soft-money ban, he says, "but I don't think it will give them much cover."

At the same time, Mr. Wertheimer says, the 527 vote doesn't guarantee that the wall of opposition will now come tumbling down, "but it is a breakthrough."

At the least, it is encouragement for the reformers to persevere, even as the special-interest cash continues to pour into the system through other soft-money loopholes.

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

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