Candidate Bill Clinton promised to come to Washington and cleanse the campaign finance stables, first by ending political reliance on "big money interests," especially un-regulated "soft money" -- donations to a party, which are not limited, in contrast to contributions to candidates, which are. Last month, though, President Clinton sat down with 2,000 representatives of big money interests and soft money contributors who paid $3.5 million to eat tenderloin and salmon with him.
The money goes to the Democratic Party. Many fat cats at the soiree used to give to the Republican Party. It is not party or ideology or personality that motivates special interests; it is the need for access to governmental decision makers.
Like all good-government types, we deplore this, but we are also realistic enough to know that when the federal government gets to make decisions that have billion-dollar consequences for, say, insurance companies and physicians, or broadcasters and publishers, or farmers and food processors, or unions, those groups will spend what they want to influence presidents and members of Congress.
Many who object to this sort of thing favor a reform bill now being thrashed out in a conference committee in Congress. It would impose some limits on soft money, and that is probably a good idea (though some academics believe parties need all the help they can get if they are to remain viable institutions). However, the main parts of the legislation are a joke, a raid on the Treasury and an attempt to protect incumbents from challengers even more than they already are protected.
Depending on how the conferees work out disagreements, the legislation would subsidize some or all candidates who accept campaign spending limits. It might penalize those who do not. It would provide a bonus subsidy to a candidate if an individual or group spent money independently opposing his or her candidacy, even if this opposition was not in support of another candidate. It would require television stations to sell campaign ads at a deep discount and deny stations the right to pre-empt such ads.
This won't produce fair elections. A challenger who can spend only as much as an incumbent is not on a level playing field. Even if we thought that would produce fair elections, we would consider this reform extravagant for an in-debt government, and policing it would be impossible. The Federal Election Commission is still reviewing and in some cases challenging presidential candidates' spending from 1988 and 1984. Can you imagine how far behind the FEC would be if instead of a dozen or so candidates to audit every four years there were hundreds every two years?
Fat cats deserve no sympathy. Neither do hypocrites who campaign against them, then embrace them in office. But anger at such does not justify the kind of "reform" pending in Congress.