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Campaign Reformers at War

By David S. Broder
Wednesday, May 20, 1998; Page A25

opinion
It hurts to say this, but it looks to me as if the folks with the deepest commitment to cleaning up the campaign finance laws of this country are about to squander the best opportunity they've had in a long time for favorable action in the House of Representatives.

Embarrassed by the public backlash against the mugging of serious reform legislation they arranged just before Easter and threatened by a growing revolt in congressional ranks, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his allies in the Republican leadership have reversed themselves and promised wide-open consideration of all the favorite remedies for the abuses that stained the 1996 campaign.

Debate may begin this week, but voting won't take place until early June, when the House comes back from its Memorial Day break.

If the reformers were to agree on a single bill, they might actually pass it. Democrats, smarting under the continuing revelations of improper and illegal tactics in the financing of President Clinton's reelection campaign, can hardly afford to be obstructionists. And enough Republicans want to cure the cancer of unregulated political money to create a majority for a serious measure.

Trouble is, the reformers are at war with each other, and because of their divisions, Gingrich and his allies may have the last laugh.

The nine or 10 bills likely to be voted on in June span the spectrum from a simple requirement of speedy disclosure of all contributions to complex regulatory schemes including elements of public financing. Gingrich and company have given preferred status to a measure written by a bipartisan task force of freshman lawmakers, guaranteeing it will be the last alternative voted on before the House decides whether it will pass anything.

Among the substitutes for the freshman bill is the measure endorsed by outside reform groups. Co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut and Democratic Rep. Martin Meehan of Massachusetts, it is the House counterpart of the Senate's McCain-Feingold bill, blessed by President Clinton and praised on countless editorial pages. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin got a majority of senators to vote for it earlier this year, but fell seven votes short of the 60 needed to break a Republican filibuster.

Both Shays-Meehan and the freshman bill, whose lead sponsors are Republican Rep. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas and Democratic Rep. Tom Allen of Maine, aim at "soft money," the huge donations to the political parties from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals that figured in most of the 1996 campaign scandals. Both also try to regulate independent expenditures by nonparty groups, although the constitutionality of any limitation on their ads that stop short of outright candidate endorsement is questionable.

Reform advocacy groups such as Common Cause and Public Citizen prefer the Shays-Meehan bill. But, like so many of the candidates whose tactics they deplore, the reform groups have not been content to be advocates; they have mounted a negative campaign against Hutchinson, Allen and their freshman allies. Public Citizen has labeled the freshman bill "ersatz reform." Common Cause says it is "phony reform" because it contains a "huge soft money loophole."

The main point in dispute involves "soft money" contributions to state political parties; Shays-Meehan would ban them, along with similar gifts to the national parties; Hutchinson-Allen would not, largely because many of the Republicans on the freshman task force thought that issue should be left to the states.

No question, the Shays-Meehan bill would be tougher on the big donors. But Hutchinson-Allen would bar federal officials, candidates for federal office, the national parties and their officials from soliciting "soft money" for state parties. That is no small thing. Michael J. Malbin of the State University of New York-Albany, who is as smart and realistic about campaign finance reform as anyone I know, has written, "The freshman bill would do everything that a soft-money ban should do: put a lid on the behavior of federal officials and candidates."

You can make a good case for Shays-Meehan. But it is a fact that the Senate version of that legislation already has been blocked. The Hutchinson-Allen bill, because it is less stringent, has the potential for attracting more Republican support in the Senate. The purists on the outside, by attacking the freshman bill, play into the hands of the Republican leaders, who will pit one reform bill against the other, with the goal of defeating both.

They don't deserve any help.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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