Finance reform dies again


WASHINGTON -- The floodgates are wide open for record spending in the 2000 presidential campaign now that the Republican filibusterers in the Senate have prevailed once again in their determination to block meaningful campaign finance reform.

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin got a little closer to collecting the 60 votes they needed to break the stranglehold of chief opponent Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, picking up three new Republican recruits.

But they still fell five votes short, and so money will continue to make a mockery of the reform laws already on the books.

Mr. McCain and Mr. Feingold, to woo more support, trimmed their bill to its bare essential -- a ban on "soft" money, the unregulated and hence unlimited bucks that influence presidential campaigns through the backdoor to state parties and committees. But not even that gesture made much difference.

Losing ground

The proponents loss some support -- from moderate Republican Sens. John Chafee of Rhode Island and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania -- by removing stringent regulation of issue-advocacy ads, through which special interest groups criticize a candidate's position on an issue without necessarily mentioning the candidate. And such ads don't directly call for voters to support or oppose an office-seeker.

Much of the credit for turning back campaign finance reform was given to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a staunch foe who promised proponents five days of debate but then cut it off after three. In doing so, however, he probably avoided prolonging the agony of defeat for the McCain-Feingold forces.

The fact is that most Republican senators know their party has been the chief beneficiary of soft money. At the same time, Democrats can take some consolation in the knowledge that they have campaign finance reform as an issue going into the 2000 election.

Most polls indicate voters want reform, but they don't appear to be sufficiently aroused to make it a key factor in how they vote. The two Democratic presidential contenders, Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley, both have put the issue, and a soft-money ban particularly, high on their campaign agendas, but it remains to be seen whether it will win them many votes.

The Republican front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, pretty much stands pat on the current campaign finance system under which his presidential bid has thrived.

In any event, Mr. Bush can afford to stand aside in the reform debate. By raising a record amount of campaign money himself, he doesn't need the federal campaign subsidy most other candidates depend on to stay in the presidential race. By passing up that subsidy, he is able to sidestep the federal campaign finance laws that put limitations on hard-money fund-raising and spending by subsidy recipients.

Without even the watered-down campaign reform bill, corporations, labor unions and other special-interest groups legally barred from making direct contributions to presidential candidates -- "hard money" -- will be able to continue candidate support through state parties and thinly veiled issue-advocacy ads really aimed at helping specific candidates.

Mr. Bradley insists that reform will become a voting issue once voters are made aware that the free flow of campaign money from special interests buys legislation that is detrimental to the voters.

But that hasn't happened yet, especially when all the presidential candidates, including Mr. Bradley, continue to raise millions in hard money to be competitive. Mr. Bradley says he isn't taking soft money or setting up "sham" committees to receive it, but that is a distinction likely to be lost on most voters.

The proponents are vowing to continue the fight, but the outlook is dim with the 2000 presidential campaign already well under way.

One candidate, multimillionaire Steve Forbes, continues his effort to buy the Republican nomination with his own money. The collapse of McCain-Feingold means many other big givers now have a green light to pump infinitely more than their own two cents into the fray.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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