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When Pigs Can Fly

By William Raspberry
Friday, October 3, 1997; Page A19


The abuses that prompted the campaign finance reforms being debated in the Senate remind Norman Ornstein of the movie "Jurassic Park."

"If you recall, these huge and dangerous animals were enclosed by an electrified fence," he said the other day. "But these were pretty smart animals, and what they would do is, every day one of them would brush up against the fence – and get a jolt of electricity. Day after day, they'd test the fence. And then one day, there was a power failure and the current wasn't there. They escaped and wreaked havoc.

"I'm afraid that's what's happened to campaign fund-raising in the last few years. All the players in the process came to believe there was no regulatory regime – no electricity in the fence."

Even the uncharged fence might have imposed some discipline, says Ornstein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, but then a couple of things happened: The Republicans lost the White House they thought was unlosable, and the Democrats lost the Congress for the first time in 40 years. "The combination of the high stakes and the belief that there were no longer any rules at all ushered in an explosion of fund-raising and spending that virtually dictated the scandalous results we've been seeing."

In Ornstein's view, what Congress needs to do – and probably won't – is to reestablish the fence and restore the electrical current of credible penalties.

Given the dauntingly complex free-TV scheme put together by Ornstein and four others (Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution, Paul Taylor of the Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition, Michael Malbin of the State University of New York at Albany and Anthony Corrado Jr. of Colby College), Ornstein's blueprint for the fence is quite modest.

Indeed it is essentially the McCain-Feingold bill that would ban the "soft money" provision of the current law that permits virtually unlimited contributions to political parties (as contrasted with the "hard money" contributions to candidates), strengthen disclosure requirements and enforcement and tighten the rules for "issue ad vocacy."

Ornstein's principal addition (which he says is supported by the four others in his coalition) would be a substantial increase in the limits for "hard money" contributions – from the present $1,000 per person per candidate to $25,000, with annual adjustments for inflation.

The problem with all these schemes – including Ornstein's – is the difficulty of deciding what ought to be forbidden.

For example, "soft money," an invention of the 1970s, was designed to encourage party-building while keeping tough limits on spending on behalf of candidates. Two problems: First is the legislative fiction that parties exist for some more fundamental reason than electing candidates to office. Second, and deadlier for the intent of the legislation, political parties figured out that they could use party money for advertising – issue advocacy – that, while ostensibly unrelated to a particular candidacy, could be dovetailed with it.

Worse, since the candidates were able to deny any control over the ads, the ads got nastier and nastier.

But would a ban on "soft money" eliminate the problem? It's hard to see how. Jonathan Rauch, a contributing editor to the National Journal, put it this way in a recent Wall Street Journal piece:

"Ban soft money, and [special interest] lobbies would bypass the parties and conduct their own campaign blitzes. Candidates and parties are already losing control of their messages as lobbies – which, unlike candidates and parties, are not accountable to voters – run independent advocacy campaigns."

The most predictable effect of McCain-Feingold, he believes, would be to "accelerate the alienation of politicians from their own campaigns" – and strangle the fund-raising ability of parties.

Who would – who could – put up an enforceable fence between advocacy and electioneering? As Rauch says, the rule might forbid him to place an ad urging the electorate to "vote against McCain-Feingold." But could it keep him from saying, "Show the promoters of the dangerous McCain-Feingold bill how you feel"?

Interestingly, Ornstein, who supports McCain-Feingold, and Rauch, who ridicules it, wind up agreeing on the most attractive (if least likely) solution: generous public funding of campaigns for candidates who agree to forgo private fund-raising.

As for the likelihood of such a reasonable reform being enacted anytime soon, they agree again: Fat chance!

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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