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Clinton just doing a dance for ol' campaign reform


Washington -- One of the dirty little secrets about President Clinton's plan for campaign finance reform is that even many of those who will feel obliged to vote for it are hoping it will bite the dust. Another is that they probably will get their wish.

And a third is that both Clinton and the Democratic leaders who stood with him in the Rose Garden are fully aware of both of those realities. It is, in short, a bit of a dance.

Much of the resistance to the proposals is simple self-interest. It is in the nature of things that incumbents will prefer the system that protects them most.

On the other hand, there is the counter pressure for reform being exerted by people who take Ross Perot seriously when he rails about lobbyists and special interests -- a group of voters obviously on Clinton's mind when he declared rather grandly: "This plan will change the way Washington works, the way campaigns are financed, the way that politics is played."

Not hardly. In fact, the plan has at least two fatal political flaws.

The most obvious is the continuation of the $5,000 limit on contributions to House candidates from political action committees who gave seven times as much money to incumbents as to challengers in the last election cycle.

Republicans will resist that provision because they see it as a way to make it so much more difficult for them to gain seats. Democrats with a genuine interest in reform also consider it, as Rep. Mike Synar of Oklahoma put it, "indefensible" for quite different reasons.

There is, of course, some window-dressing reform on the PAC limits -- a ceiling of $1,000 on what they can give to presidential campaigns and $2,500 on PAC contributions to Senate campaigns. But the hooker here is that neither presidential nor Senate candidates rely heavily on PAC money, so they are giving up far less than those limits might suggest.

The second fatal flaw is the plan for a public financing element, principally in the form of vouchers that would allow candidates who accept voluntary spending limits -- the courts have outlawed mandatory limits as a restriction on free speech -- to buy television advertising that would give them a level playing field against any who don't accept the limits.

The White House plan tries to make the public financing more palatable by assuring everyone it would not be financed by diverting money from other purposes. Instead, it would be financed by ending business deductions for lobbying activity and by raising from $1 to $5 the amount taxpayers can check off on their income tax forms for political expenditures.

The Republicans and many conservative Democrats have taken a consistently hard line against any form of public financing.

The number of voters who have checked off the $1 contribution on tax forms to pay for presidential campaigns declined from 29 percent in 1980 to under 18 percent in 1991 last year. And polls show a consistent pattern of resistance to paying the campaign costs of the very rascals the voters want to throw out of office.

The real flaw in the plan advanced by Clinton and Democratic congressional leaders is that it doesn't address the core of the problem -- the outrageous sums that candidates must raise to compete on television. The answer obviously lies in a system that would assure all candidates some exposure of their views and limit their option to buy 30-second spots that now serve as the dialogue of too many campaigns.

But where does one find a politician willing to tell the television networks and, more to the point, local stations in his district that they should not only forgo the revenue from political advertising but provide free time as well?

No one would argue that there aren't worthwhile reforms in the new campaign finance plan. It is obviously time, for example, to close the "soft money" loophole that allowed fat cats with axes to grind to pour $30 million each into the Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns last year.

Similarly, a strong case can be made for provisions that would allow Senate candidates to receive no more than 20 percent and House candidates no more than one-third of their money from PACs.

But the plan was written at least partly for political purposes that already have been served simply by its unveiling in the Rose Garden. It would be naive to expect much more.

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