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A Chance For Campaign Reform

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, August 7, 1998; Page A25

In the canon of Washington wisdom, one powerful tenet is that voters don't care about reforming the way campaigns are paid for. Campaign finance is way down there with, oh, the Law of the Sea Treaty and postal appropriations.

But if that's true, why is it that in a sluggish legislative session, the one issue that has stayed alive despite numerous setbacks, procedural muggings and visits to the respirator is -- campaign reform?

Yesterday saw a remarkable victory for a reform bill pushed fearlessly by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin Meehan (D-Mass.). It got 61 Republican votes despite the opposition of the House Republican leadership, and only 15 Democrats opposed it. It got this far despite one procedural vote after another that gave members ample opportunity to kill the bill without being on record as doing so.

How did this happen? Credit Shays and Meehan for sticking to their task despite all the wise guys who said they were wasting their time on a no-hope issue. And talk to a group of reform Republicans who know the current approach to paying for campaigns is corrupting.

Some of them, such as Reps. Linda Smith (R-Wash.) and Charles Bass (R-N.H.) have histories of supporting reform in their home states. Bass says he's still controversial in New Hampshire for a law putting tough ceilings on campaign spending. He also honors "a long list of Republicans involved in campaign reform long before me." There are only two alternatives to mending a broken system, Bass says: repeal the whole campaign reform apparatus and let the big money flow, or look at the biggest problems and begin fixing them.

"At this point, we can't go back to nothing, so we have to make what we have work better," he argues. "It's getting so corrupted now that the whole political system is being taken out of the hands of candidates." Interest groups run their own media campaigns independent of the candidates they are purportedly supporting. Candidates have to live by rules restricting their ability to raise and spend money. The interest groups don't have to.

Shays-Meehan would stop this. Within 60 days of an election, outside groups running "issue ads" that are usually attack ads would have to abide by the same disclosure and fund-raising rules as candidates do. The bill also would stop the parties from raising huge amounts of unregulated "soft money" that has coursed through the political system, undermining the law.

Are the voters indifferent to all this? Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.) doesn't think so. Voters may not pay attention to the way campaigns are paid for until election time -- but that time is now. "We are the people sending out solicitations, raising money," he says.

Voters see all this, and so do candidates opposing well-financed incumbents. "It becomes an easy target," says Quinn. "Whether the issue appears on any pollster's list, it's fresh in the minds of politicians."

The odd thing, says Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.), is that the House Republican leadership improved the bill's chances by trying so hard to kill it. This prolonged the debate, made the issue more prominent and put more members on the spot.

"This long debate, ironically and perversely from what the leadership had in mind, permitted us to focus on this issue," she says. "It was going to be hard to explain to a cynical public why we blocked this historic reform when they already think we're in the pockets of -- and bought and sold by -- the monied interests."

Now there is just one small problem: the U.S. Senate. A bill similar to Shays-Meehan already has won a majority in the Senate, but it didn't get the 60 votes required to overcome the Senate's anti-majoritarian filibuster rules. Senate Democrats support the reform bill, and many Senate Republicans fashion themselves reformers.

Republicans such as Shays, Bass, Quinn and Roukema enhanced their party's image by standing up to pressure. Will their comrades in the Senate do the same this fall? Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), up to now his party's leading advocate of campaign reform, will have to take a deep breath, risk a new confrontation with his leadership and go into the breach once more. Even for a man with his history of courage, it won't be easy. But it's necessary.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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