Political funding debate seems a futile exercise; Candidates crave the campaign money; voters lack interest


WASHINGTON -- There's a simple explanation, says Sen. Fred Thompson, for why Congress isn't likely to rein in the nation's out-of-control campaign finance system.

"Because we want the money," he says.

Many Washington officeholders clearly want to preserve the current system, which put them in power and helps keep them there. President Clinton has never paid more than lip service to reform, spending far more time raising millions of dollars from wealthy donors than twisting a few well-placed arms on Capitol Hill.

But politics-as-usual isn't the only roadblock to reducing the influence of big-money interests in elections. Voters aren't pushing for reform. And legal questions about the government's authority to restrict the flow of campaign cash pose another barrier.

"Basically, everybody knows that there aren't any rules any more, and it happened without Congress lifting a finger," says Thompson, a reform proponent. The Tennessee Republican led a Senate investigation into fund-raising practices in the 1996 campaign, from Lincoln Bedroom overnights to allegations of illegal influence-buying by foreign interests.

Those excesses, by most accounts the worst in the quarter-century since Watergate, have largely faded from memory. The public, increasingly cynical about the ability of government to reform itself, tells pollsters that it wants the current system changed but doesn't rank reform as a high priority.

As a result, the Senate's annual debate on the subject, which began yesterday, appears headed nowhere. A determined minority of Republicans, backed by their party's leadership, once again seems to have enough votes to block any changes.

If that happens, it will complete a decade of futility for campaign finance overhaul, despite some recent signs of movement toward reform. For the second year in a row, for instance, the House approved a sweeping overhaul package. And campaign reform is being talked up as an issue by candidates in the 2000 presidential contest.

But with the elections coming up, analysts say, the most likely prospect is that nothing will change soon, while record amounts of money continue to flow to the national parties and their candidates -- more than $3 billion in the 2000 campaign by some estimates.

"Probably the biggest roadblock is political," says Marshall Wittmann, director of Senate relations at the Heritage Foundation, a research center. "The way the Republican leadership views it, it would put them at a disadvantage politically to pass campaign finance reform."

Republicans benefit

Republicans have historically been the party with the deepest pockets. On the national level, the GOP collected $3 for every $2 pulled in by Democrats from 1995 through 1998, according to Federal Election Commission data.

Those figures help explain why only seven of 55 Republican senators supported last year's effort to close loopholes in the system, while Democrats were unanimous in endorsing change. This time, some Democrats may withdraw their support because the legislation has been rewritten in an effort to attract more Republican votes.

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, the leading proponents of reform, have narrowed their legislation to one main objective: banning the large, unregulated contributions from wealthy individuals, large corporations and labor unions known as "soft money."

The fastest-growing source of campaign dollars in the 1990s, soft money may be given in unlimited amounts, often exceeding $100,000. It has become the quickest way for the parties to raise large sums of money -- and represents a return of the large, potentially corrupting donations Congress tried to eliminate in the post-Watergate reforms of 1974, the last time the law was changed.

Republicans have consistently raised the most soft dollars, but it is the Democrats, forever playing catch-up in the money hunt, who have come to rely more heavily on this loophole. Aggressive soliciting by Clinton and Vice President Al Gore helped draw their party closer to parity with the Republicans in soft money than in other fund-raising categories.

Until now, Democratic lawmakers have been willing to accept a soft-money ban in exchange for other changes, such as curbs on "issue ads," the thinly disguised campaign commercials that are often financed by large contributions from corporations, labor unions and other special interests. But with those provisions removed from the Senate version of the measure, some Democrats may think twice about supporting reform.

Sen. Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey, chairman of the Senate Democratic fund-raising arm, predicts that "many people in both parties will be opposed" if there is a direct Senate vote on the latest version of McCain-Feingold. The fear is that Republicans will use their edge in soft money to shift those dollars into issue ads.

McCain, who is using the Senate debate as a platform for his Republican presidential campaign, argued yesterday that the current system is "an elaborate influence-peddling scheme in which both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder."

But many members of Congress see little danger in opposing reform, because opinion polls have found that most Americans don't care deeply about the issue.

"The public would like to see the system cleaned up, but they're very skeptical of the effectiveness of campaign finance reform, and therefore they give it low priority," says independent pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center.

Recent national surveys place it well down on the public agenda, behind issues such as gun control, health care reform and protecting Social Security and Medicare.

Beyond the legislative and political barriers are the legal challenges a reform measure would face if it got through Congress.

"It's clearly the case that the legal obstacles have become more difficult in recent years," as federal courts have punched additional holes in campaign finance restrictions, says Anthony J. Corrado, a government professor at Colby College in Maine who has written widely on the subject.

Combat imagery

Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the most prominent opponent of reform and his party's chief Senate campaign fund-raiser, invokes combat imagery in contending that a soft-money ban would amount to "disarming" the Republicans and would expose the party to "an extraordinary political disadvantage."

Over the years, McConnell has led fellow Republicans and their allies in the fight against reform to portray their stance as a defense of the Constitution and its First Amendment guarantee of free speech. In this, he is joined by the liberal American Civil Liberties Union, which also regards government regulation of campaign finances as an infringement on political speech.

Joel Gora, a Brooklyn Law School professor and general counsel of the New York Civil Liberties Union, says there is "some serious constitutional doubt" that a ban on soft money would survive judicial scrutiny from the Supreme Court.

Over the past 25 years, court orders and regulatory decisions have loosened many of the restrictions in the post-Watergate reform laws, allowing campaign spending to spiral upward. Some court observers say that a recently argued case involving a state law limiting contributions in Missouri could lead to a further loosening of government regulation of campaign finance.

"While the Senate argues over the issue, the real action is in the Supreme Court," Democrat Torricelli said recently. "I think there is a fair chance they might find the entire post-Watergate campaign finance system unconstitutional, making this whole debate moot."

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