Reform like 'putting a rock on Jell-O' Experts ask new rules on campaign finances

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- From the headlines, it looks as if Congress is cleaning up its act.

And in some ways it is: New rules passed by Congress will restrict gifts its members can receive, and require lobbyists to disclose the details of their activities.

But until Congress tackles campaign finance reform, some analysts warn, money previously spent by special interests on gifts and lobbying activities will simply ooze its way into the re-election coffers of House and Senate members.

"I think of it as putting a rock on Jell-O," said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Committee for Responsive Politics, which closely monitors the role of campaign contributions in Congress. "When you do, the mass of the Jell-O shimmies and bulges out elsewhere."

"I'm afraid the gift ban and the lobbying reform bill became diversions from the real problem regarding the loss of public confidence in Congress, and that's the issue of financing political campaigns," said Jamin B. Raskin, a constitutional law professor and author of a book on campaign financing, at American University here.

Mr. Raskin said the gift and lobbying reforms "may do away with some of the petty personal corruption that irritated so many voters. But this doesn't do away with the endemic corruption in the way we finance our political campaigns."

In formulating the new rules that sharply restrict the value and nature of lobbyists' (and others') gifts to members, the House and Senate pointedly exempted campaign donations.

One effect of this, said Wright Andrews, president of the 500-member American League of Lobbyists, will be to put an even greater premium on the value of campaign contributions.

"The House ban, in particular, is clearly going to have a big impact on the practice of taking members out to lunch," Mr. Andrews said. "It will force a closer link between lobbying and campaigning. You'll be able to go out to lunch with a member, but instead of paying for his meal you will be able to give him a campaign contribution."

That will work mainly to the advantage of the bigger, richer lobbies and to the disadvantage of smaller lobbies that can't afford to match the financial clout of the big players, Mr. Andrews said. That, in turn, he said, will propel members -- who are constantly trolling for campaign dollars -- even further into the thrall of well-heeled lobbies.

Even the lobbying reform bill could contribute, albeit indirectly, to strengthening the tie between lobbies and members' re-election hopes.

If the full-disclosure provisions of the new lobbying law show that certain lobbies are spending enormous sums on a particular issue, that could mobilize popular opinion against the lobbies. In that case, said Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who is the prime mover behind the reform bill, the lobbies might channel even more money and effort into the election campaigns of members whose votes are critical to the lobbies' legislative goals.

"It may lead to greater campaign contributions by lobbyists," Mr. Levin said. Although the lobbying bill is essentially a registration and disclosure measure, said Thomas Mann, political analyst at the Brookings Institution here, the gift ban "creates an obvious incentive to stage fund-raising events and channel more money in that direction. Having a gift ban without campaign finance reform offers a way of getting around the tough restrictions in the gift ban. Without campaign reform, they really haven't got the job done yet."

Ellen Miller of the Committee for Responsive Politics commended the general thrust of the gift ban and the lobbying bill.

But, she said, "the problem of money in politics so vastly outweighs these reforms that to leave campaign reform undone will undermine Congress' desire to be seen as reformist."

The whole process of reform, Ms. Miller said, is so complex and interwoven that it cannot be perceived as a single-issue matter.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, has pledged to start serious work on a campaign reform bill next spring, but there still appear to be vast differences of opinion about how to shape the legislation. In the past, those differences have undermined efforts to reach a workable compromise.

David Hess is a reporter in Knight-Ridder News Service's Washington Bureau.

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