THE BILL to reform congressional campaign finance -- to moderate the begging for funds and buying of access around which the legislative process now revolves -- is dead for this year. It set a quiet record. Seven times in the three months the bill was technically on the floor, Majority Leader Robert Byrd filed cloture petitions so that the Senate could proceed; seven times the Republicans, or enough of them, turned him down.
Mr. Byrd has now withdrawn the bill, although he vows to revive it in the election year. He warns that a scandal lies ahead; others say it will take a scandal to dislodge the measure.
Inevitably there will be this kind of scandal -- specific, indisputably corrupt, giving off a powerful, unmistakable stench -- and everyone will be embarrassed and start flapping, and then perhaps the system will be changed. But you don't have to wait for "a scandal": the scandal is already here. And it is not subtle. It lies not just in the rancid system, but in the shrugs of acceptance with which the system is met, in the glib refusal of the Republicans to take the minimally necessary steps to change it. Because they are better fund-raisers than the Democrats, they think that in the short run they preserve an advantage. We doubt it. In the meantime they tarnish themselves as well as the institution of which they are a part.
The sums required to campaign have become too vast. An average Senate seat now costs $3 million. That means an average senator must raise $10,000 a week every week of his six-year term. A senator from a large state or who expects a strong opponent must raise much more. To do it senators must sell some part of themselves and their offices. Do you doubt it? Can anyone?
The year began with the earthy news that Lloyd Bentsen, on his ascension to the chairmanship of the Finance Committee, had created a breakfast club through which invited lobbyists could contribute $10,000 each for the privilege of meeting with him once a month until the 1988 election. Mr. Bentsen hastily disbanded the club, even as it turned out that his predecessor, Bob Packwood, and other pillars of rectitude on the Finance Committee had had similar arrangements, as did Majority Leader Byrd. Nor did the disbanding of the club much matter, except in preserving the semblance of propriety. Most of the same lobbyists gave Mr. Bentsen the money anyway, without the eggs. Maybe the money flows to him and Mr. Byrd and the others partly because they are such statesmen. We would like to think so. But who really does?
The House if anything is worse. The amounts are smaller -- $300,000 for an average term -- but the dependence on organized giving, on the PACs, is higher. Many senior members of the House get more than half their money from PACs; many get more than they can spend. It is not unfair to say they are kept by the interest groups over which their committee assignments give them jurisdiction.
There are some who call this system healthy, democracy at work. In a way and to a point it is -- but it is past that point. There need to be limits. The Supreme Court has said that, to conform to the First Amendment, spending limits must be voluntary, which means as a practical matter there must be incentives to abide by them; they have to be in return for public funds. The Republicans object to public financing of campaigns. The Democrats backed it out of their bill until it was only an insurance policy for candidates who agreed to abide by the limits for their states but whose opponents would not. The Republicans still wouldn't buy (though three moderates did vote for cloture). The limits turn out to be their sticking point. They are wallowing in excess. The Senate lives with its hand outstretched as a result.
Sen. Byrd should indeed bring the bill back next year. Those who will not change the present system should have it hung around their necks.