Reform effort likely to miss

Priorities: As Congress studies the languishing bill to reform campaign finance, loopholes in the legislation may prevent even a passed version from staying true to the cause.

January 21, 2001|By Josh Silver

AS ELECTION DAY recedes into history, the fund-raising frenzy has been tallied, and the situation is bleak. Not just because the average U.S. senator spent over $5.5 million to win election, or because the two major presidential candidates spent over $300 million in hard money, or because the amount spent in the 2000 elections is up more than a third from 1996, or that the moneyed interests that invested in their candidates are set to receive the requisite tax breaks, pork projects, emission loopholes and corporate welfare deals. That's just another election story we've heard before.

The real story is the fractured and misguided reform community that stands to derail comprehensive electoral reform in Washington and across the nation. Eighty-seven percent of the public thinks that special interest contributions affect the voting behavior of members of Congress. Ask the average American what the solution is, and you will likely get a blank stare or you might hear "McCain-Fein-gold," the bill that has languished for five years in Congress, and if passed, would ban "soft" money -- contributions to political parties to be spent on issue ads that look and work like campaign ads, but because of technicalities are not controlled by election law.

But the bill is riddled with loopholes, and according to the watch dog group Public Campaign, only slightly more than 20 percent of the money spent on the 2000 elections was soft money.

Since its introduction, the bill, which is sponsored by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, has had the strong support of several good-government groups that believe incremental campaign reform is the best first step.

But the original legislation has been gutted. It lost key provisions, including free airtime for candidates and a ban on "bundling" -- the collection of campaign contributions from many sources and funneling them as a single contribution.

McCain, with a handful of reform community allies in tow, is considering doubling the allowable hard money contribution limits -- a provision that would allow far more money to flow into campaigns than does today.

If passed, McCain-Feingold will set back the reform community and the nation for years to come.

Good-government groups such as Common Cause and Public Citizen have staked their resources and reputations on McCain-Fein-gold. Desperate for a win, they have turned a blind eye to the law's impotence, putting their own political agenda over that of the people. They have also turned a blind eye to the evidence that McCain is using the populist campaign reform effort as a tool to gain popularity with voters.

In 1998, when President Clinton and Federal Communications Commission Chairman William E. Kennard announced that the FCC would develop new rules governing political ads to allow free airtime for candidates, the powerful broadcast corporations and their omnipotent lobbyists halted the initiative immediately. "The FCC is clearly overstepping its authority here," McCain said. No wonder -- according to the Center for Public Integrity, McCain has collected more money (over $685,000) from media corporations than any current member of Congress.

With a case of diminished expectations and alienation from the constituencies they represent, beltway reformers are proudly announcing that the votes are lined up to finally pass McCain-Fein-gold. With Bush's need to appease McCain and the Democrats and make good on his "reformer with results" platform, it is possible that even he will sign it -- the man who raised more money by far than any presidential candidate in history.

The most dangerous threat posed by McCain-Feingold's passage would be the public perception that the problem has been fixed. But history proves that politicians will only pass reform when their backs are against the wall, such as was the case in post-Watergate 1974. Indeed, intense public awareness and resolve must exist to force the fox to put a lock on the henhouse. Consensus over what constitutes comprehensive reform has sharpened. Full public financing -- the creation of a public fund to pay for qualified candidates, has become increasingly accepted by the wider reform community as the ultimate goal.

At first skeptical, critics and allies have seen full public funding laws passed in four states -- Massachusetts, Arizona, Maine and Vermont -- and based on the 2000 elections, it seems to work. In Maine, 116 of 352 legislative candidates chose to run as publicly funded or "Clean" candidates, and of those, 54 percent won. More women ran, and contested primaries increased by 40 percent.

The four states are laboratories for a reform whose staunchest supporters were never positive would work. The good news is that it does. The bad news is that many in the reform community and several well-intentioned legislators may soon pass a watered-down "reform" that is laced with a poison pill that will set back comprehensive reform efforts for years.

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