Another campaign finance reform stalemate? On Politics Today


Washington -- REMEMBER the case of the Keating Five? That was the one in which, among other things, five senators who had received large campaign contributions from a moneybags developer named Charles Keating were called on the senatorial carpet for having interceded in his behalf with federal savings-and-loan regulators. It was supposed to, like Watergate in 1972, trigger real campaign finance reform by providing an example of the corruption of the existing system.

Now listen to Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, chief opponent of the Democratic-sponsored reform that has passed the Senate and author of a Republican version that failed: "With the Keating case over . . . the momentum of the legislation is not as great as it was last year."

So much for campaign finance reform zeal. McConnell is a particular foe of one of the features of the Democratic bill, extending public financing that now exists for presidential elections to congressional races. "We're going to have a field day on this," he says of himself and his Republican colleagues, "and they [the Democrats] know it."

What McConnell is referring to here is the fierce anti-politician climate in the country these days, which he obviously believes will manifest itself in noisy opposition to a Democratic scheme for having John Q. Taxpayer pick up the tab for all those worthless political hacks seeking re-election to Congress as well as for those future hacks who would like to replace them.

The Senate passed the new Democratic campaign finance package 56-42 -- a comfortable margin but one clearly far short of the count needed to override a promised veto by President Bush.

The 1992 election is not far from the minds of both sides as they appear to be heading toward yet another stalemate on campaign finance reform. As McConnell has indicated, the Republicans hope to tar the Democrats with continuing to sock the taxpayers, while the Democrats want to paint them as reform obstructionists who are doing fine in campaign finance as it is, with their record of superior fund-raising.

A particularly unfortunate casualty may be a bipartisan decision in the Senate to remove at last the blot on the institution's reputation caused by the continued practice of permitting members to accept honorariums for speeches and appearances before private groups, often those with heavy business before committees on which the recipients serve. The Senate voted 72-24 to bar the speaking fees, which already are prohibited in the House.

On this one, the Senate has really come up on the short end, inasmuch as the House in banning honorariums two years ago also voted itself a pay raise for this year. The Senate then elected to forgo the raise, continue the honorariums but limit them in stages. An attempt this time around to tie the ban to a comparable pay raise, proposed by Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, who seldom has trouble seeing his own self-interest in such matters, failed.

In a surge of righteousness, the Senate also approved an amendment by Democratic Sen. Pat Moynihan of New York, a man of modest means, limiting other outside income including funds from investments of the sort that keep a number of other senators in both parties in the category of multimillionaires. They voted against the amendment but it passed narrowly amid Moynihan's plea to keep the Senate in the hands of the hoi polloi. Fellow Democrats Jay Rockfeller and Ted Kennedy, they of the moneyed class, were not amused.

Where all this will end is still an open question, but a good guess is that the answer will be nowhere. Bush clearly has the votes in the Senate to make his veto stick, so unless further compromises can be worked out, the chances are campaign finance reform will live only as a 1992 campaign issue, with both sides wringing their hands and blaming the other for failure to act.

Furthermore, the picture is so muddied now by the charges back and forth of responsibility for the years of foot-dragging that the issue is likely to be a wash with the voters as well. They seem only too willing to believe these days that all politicians of whatever party are culpable for failure to clean their own houses.

The celebrated case of the Keating Five is just a piece of political history.

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