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    Below Zero: The Prospects For Reform

    By Dwight L. Morris
    October 28, 1996

    No matter which party wins control of the House, the Senate and the White House next week, there is one thing you can be absolutely sure of. There will be no substantive campaign finance reform in 1997 or 1998. While those in power will want it far less than those seeking power, it is clear that neither party wants campaign finance reform, election-year pandering aside.

    This week, when the Democratic National Committee announced that it would not file a pre-election financial report with the Federal Election Commission, it openly flouted the spirit of campaign finance laws. The DNC initially justified its decision by making the patently absurd claim that it spent nothing, not even a dollar, during the first two weeks of October to directly support the candidacies of President Clinton or any of its House and Senate candidates. This excuse has been used in the past by the Democrats' opponents – Newt Gingrich's GOPAC for instance, but it would be the first time that a major party used it to fail to file a pre-election report. Under intense pressure, the DNC finally reversed itself, agreeing to a full disclosure before the election.

    California Republican Rep. John T. Doolittle summed up the majority view on both sides of the aisle in 1996 when he argued that Republicans seeking reform were naive at best and committing political suicide at worst. "Some of our members are under the misguided impression that somehow this is a positive campaign issue for them," Doolittle declared. "I think it's a stupid idea." Or, as another Republican member put it in a confidential report on campaign finance reform that was leaked to the press last January, "I've never seen folks in the majority work so hard to return to the minority."

    Promises, promises ...
    For those who doubt that this pessimistic assessment is shared by the president and the vast majority of those in Congress – whether they are newly elected or 30-year veterans – the past two years offer only the latest evidence of the seductive power of campaign contributions.

    In June 1995, President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich publicly agreed to establish a "blue ribbon" panel on campaign reform. Nearly eighteen months later, there is still no sign of a panel.

    In August 1995, presumably with the full knowledge and blessing of the president, the Democratic National Committee began using millions of dollars in so-called soft money (money that is supposed to be used only for "party-building" efforts) to fund "voter education" commercials that were nothing less than poorly disguised campaign spots touting his accomplishments in office.

    By using soft money to fund the ads, the DNC violated the spirit, if not the letter, of laws banning direct contributions to federal campaigns by corporations and labor unions. While the development of political action committees had punched gaping holes in that ban, the DNC's bold move to use soft-money in what amounted to direct support of a candidate rendered the prohibition completely meaningless.

    Decidely Gleeful
    Feigning outrage but decidedly gleeful at the prospect of exploiting their fund-raising advantage, the Republican response was to begin using soft money to fund ads in Nebraska, Minnesota and other states where they saw an opportunity to pick up House and Senate seats in 1996. Out of money in June and with nearly two months to go before he could tap the federal treasury for $62 million to fund his general election campaign, Bob Dole turned to the Republican National Committee, which was all too eager to spend soft money on his behalf.

    A champion of campaign finance reform while seeking the presidency, Bill Clinton now presides over a party fund-raising apparatus that accepted an illegal $250,000 contribution from Cheong Am America, Inc. The newly established American subsidiary of a South Korean electronics company had not officially established operations in the United States at the time it made the donation using money supplied by its South Korean parent – a violation of federal law banning donations from foreign nationals or corporations. The contribution was returned last month only after the Los Angeles Times began asking questions about its legality. Several weeks later the Republican National Committee was forced to return an illegal $15,000 donation made by a Canadian firm after Roll Call, a bi-weekly newspaper dedicated to covering Congress, asked questions about the contribution's origin.

    An Institutional Joke
    On Capitol Hill, campaign finance reform bills have become an institutional joke. Every two years, for nearly a decade, reform measures have been among the first bills recorded on the House and Senate legislative dockets, and virtually every time they have been buried in committee. In 1992, House and Senate Democrats pushed through reform legislation knowing they did not have the votes to override a promised veto by then-President George Bush. It was election-year grandstanding that Democrats made no effort to follow through on once they gained control of the White House.

    A few lonely soles on both sides of the aisle stepped forward in 1995 and 1996 to make yet another push for reform. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.), Russell D. Feingold (D-Wisc.), and Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) co-sponsored a bill that would have banned PACs, provided candidates who agreed to abide by spending limits with reduced rates for broadcast advertising and mail, and outlawed soft money donations. Fearful that the proposals might somehow become law, RNC chairman Haley Barbour implored McCain to reconsider. In a 10-page letter to McCain, Barbour argued that the bill would shut off the party's cash spigot, making it impossible for the national party to effectively support its candidates. While Barbour couldn't turn McCain around, he had no trouble securing sufficient support to stop the bill from coming to a vote. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stepped forward with a threat to filibuster the bill.

    Worried that the bill's language would render their "non-partisan" voter guides illegal, the Christian Coalition and the National Right to Life Committee lobbied hard to defeat the bill – a message that was not lost on the Republicans who routinely benefit from their clearly partisan electioneering efforts. With newly installed Majority Leader Trent Lott leading the charge, all attempts to force cloture and bring the bill to the floor for a vote fell short.

    In the House, the Republican leadership beat back proposals to ban PACs and soft money, provide deep discounts on television advertising and mailing rates for those agreeing to abide by a $600,000 spending cap, and tighten disclosure requirements for so-called "independent" campaigns by business and labor interests. When Republican Reps. Linda Smith (Wash.) and Christopher Shays (Conn.) joined forces with Democrat Martin T. Meehan (Mass.) to push legislation that would also have prohibited fundraising within a 50-mile radius of the Capitol (except for members who represented the area), it went nowhere.

    Toothless Reforms
    Instead, the Republican leadership favored "reforms" that increased the amount individuals could give a candidate from the current $1,000 per election to $2,500 per election (a total of $5,000 for the primary and general election campaigns). The bill favored by leadership would have sliced the amount PACs can give from $5,000 (a total of $10,000 for the primary and general elections) to $2,500. However, since the average PAC donation is only about $2,500, that change would not have reduced the money flow one bit. Still, that bill went nowhere, as well.

    Assuming a $600,000 voluntary spending cap were ever passed, it would barely impact the process. Only about 20 percent of all House candidates since 1990 have spent as much as $600,000, and many of those were self-financed candidates like Republican Gene Fontenot, who spent more than $2 million of his own money on an unsuccessful bid in 1994 to capture the open seat in Texas' 25th District.

    Why would Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) agree to a $600,000 spending cap to get cut-rate advertising when in 1994 he spent $1,484,104 but invested just $41,876 in radio commercials (no TV ads in the expensive New York city market)? Among Rangel's outlays that year were $54,529 in donations to local Democratic party organizations, $37,750 in donations to local candidates, and charitable donations totaling $46,185. Rangel also spent $13,488 on his campaign car.

    Constitutional Roadblock
    Given the Supreme Court's ruling last June that the Republican and Democratic parties are now free to spend unlimited sums in races – as long as they don't coordinate that spending with the candidates (wink, wink) – all of the debate about reform legislation has become effectively moot in any event. Crowned constitutionally free speech by the Court, any attempt to seriously restrict campaign expenditures will require a Constitutional amendment. Barring a scandal of Watergate proportions, there is no chance of that happening.

    This article originally appeared on the PoliticsNow Web site.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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