WASHINGTON -- As a group of University of Maryland students stood outside a Democratic fund-raiser here last week, waving signs to protest the influence of money, President Clinton glided by in his motorcade and waved warmly.
Then he waltzed into the $2,000-a-plate dinner and helped his party collect $3 million.
While politicians of all makes and models have given an approving nod to the public's cry for reforming the way politics is practiced -- especially how campaigns are financed -- there has been little action and even less talk of these issues on the campaign trail.
In his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, Clinton called for campaign finance reform, saying it was "one more thing" left to do in the name of cleaning up politics.
In his final act as a senator in June, Bob Dole called for a commission to study campaign reform.
But as they mine for votes, neither Clinton nor Dole has addressed voters' disgust with a system marked by perks and fat pensions and cozy ties between politicians and the special interests that bankroll them.
Instead, they are raking in money for their parties and congressional candidates -- record millions -- from benefactors, corporations, entire industries.
"It's the one issue neither candidate wants to talk about," says Larry Makinson of the Center for Responsive Politics.
"It's not in anyone's interest to raise the issue because they're both vulnerable on it. It's the best example of the kind of discussion we would have if the field was three, instead of two, in the debates."
Indeed, reforms -- including such thorny issues as the financing of campaigns and the limiting of legislators' terms -- have been largely left to Ross Perot, who has raised the subject much as he did with the budget deficit in 1992.
But even Perot has not so much offered solutions as attacked the status quo in his inimitably vivid way. "Asking the Democrats and Republicans to solve these problems is like asking a heart surgeon who lost his last 32 patients to operate on you," he said last week.
It is, in fact, asking people who have benefited from a system to alter it.
"The status quo protects incumbency, and challengers don't vote," says Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who favors finance reform.
The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that $800 million will be spent this year on the presidential race, another $800 million on congressional races.
PACs and 'soft money'
Much of that will come from political action committees, which funnel donations from corporations and interest groups to candidates. Another source is "soft money," the unregulated money that is contributed to political parties, rather than to specific candidates.
The huge sums also reflect an explosion in spending by outside groups to promote "issues" -- money not regulated because it is separate from any campaign and does not overtly promote any candidate.
The AFL-CIO, for example, has spent $35 million on "issue ads" that promote Democratic positions but are careful to avoid endorsing any particular candidate.
"I don't blame labor," McCain said. "Everybody's doing it."
Voters don't generally list political reform as a chief concern. But the perception that big-money interests drown out the average citizen's voice has contributed to rising disenchantment.
A recent survey by the Campaign for America Project showed that about half the electorate believes it is special interests -- not Congress, not the president -- that control government.
"That's pretty cynical," says Greg D. Kubiak, a campaign finance specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Mindful of such sentiments, the Republican-led 104th Congress dangled an ambitious agenda of political reform before the electorate, packaging term limits in its "Contract with America" and promising to tackle everything from gold-plated congressional pensions to lobbying rules.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Clinton shook hands last year on a pledge to form a commission to examine campaign finance and lobbying laws.
But the handshake led to nothing -- "for reasons that go back to partisanship," Gingrich said last week. And Congress took up only a portion of its reform agenda.
"Congress did a few of the easy things and none of the tough, real, meaningful reforms," says Derek Cressman, campaign director of Americans Against Political Corruption, which is asking congressional candidates to vow to raise money from ordinary citizens instead of special interests.
Only 30 members of Congress, including Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, accept no PAC contributions, according to Common Cause.
The first Republican-led Congress in 40 years made its mark by passing a bill that applied to Congress the same workplace laws that apply to everyone else. It also tightened rules for lobbyists' disclosure and registration and banned free meals and other perks for lawmakers.
A proposed constitutional amendment to limit the terms of lawmakers to 12 years collapsed. Dole, who spent 35 years in Congress, conceded then that he was "lukewarm" to the idea.
But the most glaring omission for this Congress was the reform of a campaign finance system.
"Leaving that one undone is leaving the worst of the system intact," said Jennifer Lamson, a vice president of Common Cause.
GOP leaders block incentives
A Senate bill -- introduced by McCain and Sen. Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat -- would have curbed PACs, provided advertising and postage discounts for candidates who limited their spending, and restricted how much of their own money candidates could spend.
But the new Republican leadership led the opposition and blocked the bill. Republican opponents argued that such restrictions would infringe on the rights of free speech and participation in the political process.
McCain and Feingold have vowed to re-introduce the bill -- endorsed by Clinton and opposed by Dole, who instead favors a commission to study campaign finance -- on the first day of the 105th Congress next year.
For its part, the House rejected a Gingrich-backed bill that would have cut the amount of money PACs could donate to a candidate and required that most money raised in a campaign come from the candidate's home district.
When they controlled both Congress and the White House, Democrats were no more successful in restricting fund-raising.
"There's a real lack of consensus on how to deal with the issue," says Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution.
In fact, each proposed solution has its own complexities, including Supreme Court rulings that have obstructed some reform efforts.
A 1976 decision banned limits on campaign spending, equating it with free speech. A ruling this summer said party organizations could spend as much as they wanted in congressional races so long as they acted independently of the candidates.
With public financing of congressional campaigns losing appeal, some have suggested incentives for politicians to limit their spending and their dependence on special-interest money.
'Clean Congress Campaign'
Common Cause recently launched a "Clean Congress Campaign," asking congressional candidates to refuse to accept contributions from lobbyists, hold fund-raisers in Washington or participate in fund-raisers where soft money is collected.
Another initiative calls on the TV networks to give free air time to presidential candidates.
If the public is getting the silent treatment on such issues from the presidential rivals, it is hearing more from congressional candidates.
Mark Warner, the Democratic challenger to Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, is running TV ads accusing his Republican opponent of being too cozy with lobbyists and their money.
And some reform-minded politicians believe that, with public awareness rising, such issues could affect the outcome of some races this November.
Sen. Sheila Frahm, who replaced Dole and voted to block the campaign finance reform bill, was toppled by Rep. Sam Brownback this year when Kansas Republicans chose their Senate nominee. Brownback, who co-sponsored the House bill, made an issue of their opposing votes.
Still, while some analysts believe the campaign finance issue contributed to Frahm's defeat, political reform is still relatively low on voters' shopping lists. McCain and others say it will take a major scandal to spark substantive reform.
After all, it took the fund-raising abuses of Watergate to impel the 1974 campaign finance laws that limited contributions and established public financing for presidential elections -- the last time any major campaign finance reform was enacted.
Voters have become inured, Mann suggests, to the specter of tobacco, health care and banking interests filling campaign coffers.
"In the old days, you waited for a scandal," he says.
"Today, with financial disclosures, we have had a continuous flow of scandals. Everyone's been deadened by it."
Pub Date: 10/09/96