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Proud of Their Fund-Raising Prowess

By David S. Broder
Wednesday, March 12, 1997; Page A19

The White House rationale for the questionable 1996 campaign fund-raising practices is more revealing than its authors seem to realize. Take their arguments at face value and you will see why incumbents of either party are not likely to allow major changes in this system.

What President Clinton and his assorted spokesmen have been saying is this: We Democrats got our clocks cleaned by the Republicans in 1994 and they were gearing up to outspend us again in 1996, as in fact they did. So we cranked up the money machine in earnest. Some folks decided for reasons of their own to help us out. Some of them were shady, and we should have put a finer moral screen on their contributions.

But – and this, Clinton & Co. insists is the key point – nobody has proved yet we did anything improper in return. And, remember, please, that we weren't doing this for ourselves. We were doing it to save those millions of people whose lives would have been ruined if the Republicans were running everything in Washington.

Therefore, despite the embarrassment of having to return $3 million so far to some particularly sleazy characters, despite the knocks they're getting for the hospitality they lavished on these suspect donors, despite the rule-bending involved in solicitation calls from the White House by the vice president and a $50,000 check being received at the White House by the first lady's top aide, despite all this press furor, they are proud – proud – of what they did.

Better to stand and fight than capitulate to those wicked Republicans, they say.

When I remark that this rationale is more revealing than they realize, what I mean is that this is the very sort of mind-set that has made it impossible to get real change in the campaign finance system for the last 20 years.

In all that time, there has never been a moment when one party or the other – and often both – could not discover a better reason to exploit the opportunities the present system allows than to change it in any basic way.

Rarely a day goes by that Clinton and Gore do not urge Congress to pass a sweeping campaign finance reform bill. But when the Democrats controlled the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives in 1993-94, no campaign finance bill ever reached the president's desk. The many House Democrats who depend on union political-action committees for their biggest contributions did not want to accept a ban or severe limitations on PACs that senators, who are less dependent on PACs, were ready to write. Feminist Democrats and their supporters insisted that EMILY's List – a wildly successful machine for bundling contributions for female Democratic candidates – be given special protection.

Republicans, for their part, wanted union spending curbed – but not much else. Clinton, who had many other fish to fry on Capitol Hill, acquiesced in a congressional slowdown that ensured the success of the promised Republican Senate filibuster.

Republicans have been no better. President Bush vetoed a "reform" bill he rightly said was tilted to the Democrats, and the last Republican Congress never passed any legislation in this area.

The reality is that most incumbents of both parties – for all that they may whine about the burden of fund-rais\ing – prefer the system under which they were elected to any untested scheme that might replace it.

Another reality is that it is damnably difficult to devise a system that will effectively reduce the role of money in politics and still not trample on constitutional rights to express political views. The difficulty of striking a balance – and rising above the parochial interests of incumbents – makes it sensible to consider creating a blue-ribbon bipartisan commission to frame a proposal Congress could vote up or down, but not amend. Former senator Bob Dole offered that idea several times, and it is embodied now in a bipartisan proposal originated by Rep. Rick White (R-Wash.).

It is likely that the focus on sleazy campaign practices will force the passage of something called the Clean Elections Act of 1998.

But without such a commission, it may well be cosmetic legislation. You could probably get a unanimous vote in the House and Senate today for a provision that would impose a federal death penalty on any foreigner giving even a $5 contribution to an American candidate.

They would love to congratulate themselves on their virtue and be able to tell their constituents that they had slammed the door shut on those despicable aliens' tampering with the integrity of our elections.

And then they could go back to business as usual, Republicans and Democrats alike.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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