Finance reform's effects uncertain

Politicians, backers could circumvent ban on `soft money'

April 02, 2001|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With the Senate's expected approval today of sweeping changes in campaign finance laws, Sen. John McCain and his reform-minded allies are preparing to savor a long-sought triumph.

After struggling for more than a decade, they are on the verge of what is being described as a landmark victory in the fight to reduce the influence of big money in politics.

But who wins in the long run -- assuming that the House approves the measure and President Bush signs it into law -- could be an entirely different matter.

Bush might turn out to be the biggest single winner -- at least in dollar terms. The president stands to raise upward of a quarter-billion dollars for his re-election under the new system.

And among political insiders, there is heavy betting that the usual suspects will come out ahead: incumbent politicians, large special-interest groups, corporations, labor unions, lobbyists, political consultants, fund-raising specialists and Washington lawyers.

"I feel like a tow-truck operator who just learned that there's a 100-car pileup on the interstate," says Jan Baran, a top Republican election lawyer who expects to stay busy litigating a measure he sees as constitutionally questionable.

Any time Congress tries to reduce the amount of money in campaigns, unintended consequences are almost guaranteed. In the 1970s, the Supreme Court threw out the post-Watergate limits on spending but left intact the limits on donations, leading the political parties into a big-donor chase in an effort to keep up with rising campaign costs.

"Nobody knows right now who it helps or who it doesn't help," says Jenny Backus, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee.

Senate approval of McCain's measure today, over the opposition of the Republican leadership and most Republican senators, would be a major victory for the Arizona Republican and many others, including groups such as Common Cause that have crusaded for years to change the law.

Bush could benefit

Because of a simmering rivalry between McCain and Bush, the president is regarded as a loser in the campaign-finance battle.

The Senate measure omits several major provisions that Bush -- a lukewarm advocate of campaign reform, at best -- wanted to have included. Among them: new curbs on political activities by organized labor and a loophole that would have let wealthy individuals keep making unlimited donations to the national parties.

Despite the Senate's rejection of those provisions, the president could emerge as the major beneficiary of the new system. Last year, operating under contribution limits that hadn't been increased in a quarter-century, Bush collected a record-shattering $100 million in amounts of $1,000 or less.

The new measure would raise the ceiling on direct contributions to candidates to $2,000, twice the previous amount. Most politicians believe Bush would have little difficulty persuading his donors to double their earlier contributions.

"I've got to believe that, conservatively, Bush could raise a quarter of a billion dollars in 2004," says Baran, noting that Bush would have the advantage of incumbency, in addition to the new, higher limit.

With a huge new bankroll, Bush would be able to wage an expensive TV ad campaign promoting his re-election, starting as early as 2003. His Democratic rivals would be forced to spend their campaign cash fighting each other for the nomination.

Senators and congressmen, who already enjoy considerable advantages (as demonstrated by re-election rates that exceed 95 percent), would also gain.

"Incumbents always benefit. I don't care what anybody says," says Tony Coelho, a former congressman and manager of Al Gore's presidential effort. "No campaign finance reform helps out a challenger, unless you go to public financing" of elections.

Incumbent-boosting provisions of the Senate measure include new tools to protect candidates against wealthy, self-financed challengers (who are free, under a 1976 Supreme Court ruling, to spend unlimited amounts of their own money). The measure would lift the ceilings on contributions for candidates facing a wealthy opponent who dips heavily into his or her own bank account.

The Senate measure would also require TV stations to sell candidates airtime for political commercials at lower rates. That, along with the new, higher limits on contributions, should let incumbents -- who outspend challengers in the vast majority of cases -- stretch their dollar advantage even further.

Advocates of overhauling the campaign system acknowledge that the proposed new rules alone won't solve all of the problems that have led many Americans to conclude that the political process is corrupt.

"This is only a first step," says Scott Harshbarger, president of Common Cause. "It is not a utopian solution."

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