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Courting Worse Trouble

Wednesday, September 21 1997; Page A18


SENS. JOHN McCain and Russell Feingold are said to be scaling back their campaign finance reform bill so that it deals no longer with the system as a whole, but still with the principal problems that were so manifest in last year's presidential election; some of these problems were what led the Justice Department to take the first step that could lead to naming a special prosecutor to investigate President Clinton's fund-raising phone calls from the White House. The politics of the issue are suddenly such that, after a certain amount of further posturing, the bobtailed measure seems likely to come to the Senate floor sometime this year.

We believe that a slightly retooled version of this bill could solve the most urgent of the current campaign finance problems without impinging on the First Amendment – accomplish the difficult task of creating a cleaner system while upholding the free-speech clause. We believe as well that the leaders of the Senate, both parties, together with the president, have the capacity to bring about this result and to impart a much-needed integrity to the political system, if they will. If the bill is defeated or deflected, it will be because one side or the other or both set out to defeat it rather than to make the legislative process work. The game in the past has always been to feign support for reform while arranging at the same time to defeat it and avoid the blame. They ought not be allowed to do it again.

The senators' original bill included an effort to level the playing field in congressional elections – reduce the inordinate, built-in financial advantage that incumbents tend to have over challengers – by creating a system of voluntary spending limits. Candidates who adhered to the limits would have their campaigns partly subsidized. Republicans oppose extending this presidential system to congressional races, and for want of votes, as well as to focus the debate, the sponsors reportedly have agreed to drop it from the bill, reserving the right to offer it as an amendment on the floor.

The simplified bill concentrates instead on the use of so-called soft money and other means by which the already existing limits on giving and spending campaign funds were mocked and overridden in the last election by both parties. The law limits what can be given to and spent by presidential campaigns. The limits were negated by raising vast additional sums not in the name of the campaigns but in the name of the parties, whose finances are also subject to regulation but to a much lesser degree. The bill would eliminate most of this soft money by ending the fictional distinction and saying essentially that campaign and party contributions are the same. Among much else, this would have what we regard as the salutary effect of limiting contributions of corporate and labor union funds to the parties – not money from the political action committees they might set up to receive and pass on individual contributions, but money from their central treasuries. They rightly have been barred from giving such money to candidates for most of this century.

The harder next issue is what to do about money given to or spent not by the parties but by ostensibly independent organizations often in much the same ways. There are rules on the books meant to keep the independence of such organizations from being a sham. There can be none of what the law defines as coordination of their activities with those of campaigns, else their expenditures become subject to many of the limits that govern campaign organizations. Likewise, they cannot engage in express advocacy – can't urge people in so many words to vote for this candidate and against that.

But they can engage in "issue advocacy," which means they can do pretty much the same thing by, say, publishing a guide that says Candidate A has voted right on this issue and Candidate B has voted wrong. The bill would impose new restrictions on such issue advocacy to prevent it from being used as an adjunct to campaigns. The restrictions are a clumsy device that would put the government into the business of policing political speech by altogether legitimate advocacy groups whose constitutionally protected participation in the political process ought to be welcomed. A better way of achieving the desired balance might be to limit the sources of money that can be used for unfettered issue advocacy. The financing of advocacy is a fair subject for the government to be concerned about; content is a swamp.

Some will argue that a bill such as this, having mainly to do with soft money, doesn't go far enough. They believe the effect of its passage would be to perpetuate for who knows how many more years the practices that it omits; members would say they had already done campaign finance. Some Democrats may try to restore the trade-off of congressional spending limits for subsidies. The trade-off is a good idea, but the votes aren't there, and its inclusion in this bill would only blur the issue, waste an opportunity and produce a stalemate. Some Republicans may likewise propose amendments whose effect if not intent would be to kill the bill by causing the Democrats to withdraw. One such would create new complications for the political use of union dues.

This is legislation that is going to have trouble enough without the insertion of poison pills. We say again: The leaders can pass a soft money bill if they will. Many members of both parties fear the step. They think it's not in their interest to do so. They might consider instead how many of them have become the victims of the system that they think protects them – how many members of both parties have had their reputations and stature reduced in just the last few years by the endless grubbing for money that the present system requires. The president, the vice president, the speaker of the House – who in politics is not affected by the fallout? They court terrific additional political damage to themselves if they let this system live.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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