EARLIER IN this Congress there was a lot of talk that this time the members just might be serious about passing campaign finance reform. You don't hear too much of that anymore. Both parties and houses have carefully let it go so long that they're about out of time.
Most Americans got a day off for Memorial Day. Congress will take a week. When the members return it will be June, and given the other vacations they have scheduled -- the week of July 4, the month of August -- there will be only 12 weeks left before their hoped-for early adjournment Oct. 5. The latter is a date set so that they will have plenty of time to campaign and spend the contributions they will not have had the time to control.
There will be a lot of things to do in those final weeks. As always happens, the whole Congress hinges on them. A budget agreement has to be worked out with the president, and a major adjustment of defense policy has to be passed. Reconciliation and appropriations bills will then be required to give effect to the budget. Sharp disagreements are left to be worked out in conference on clean air and child care. A complicated civil rights bill awaits both houses. The Senate has yet to address parental leave. Both houses are at work on major farm and housing bills, and it being an election year, there is a crime bill up.
That -- instead of campaign finance -- is the urgent agenda to which the Senate will return. Campaign finance is stuck in murky negotiations between the parties, which is about where it has been for the past three years. The question has been the same throughout -- will Bob Dole and his Republicans deal or continue to stonewall? The answer so far has been mostly the latter. It is likely to remain so until the majority leader, George Mitchell, brings the matter to the floor and forces the Republicans to choose between wrapping their arms around the current system and trying seriously to fix it. Our sense remains that, if forced, enough senators will help fix it to produce a bill that will benefit both parties and do a little needed mucking-out besides.
And of course even if a bill does pass the Senate, there is still the House, where, despite some brave words last year and this from the leaders of both parties, zero has happened. Here roles are reversed. It is the Democrats who are the sleek defenders of the status quo. Why change a mortal lock? The equally entrenched (albeit as a minority) Republicans are little better, if at all.
The need is for spending limits because the price of office has gone too high -- $4 million on average last time around in the Senate, nearly $400,000 per seat in the House. That's what the average winners spent. Those in costlier jurisdictions or with serious opponents spent much more. The average senator now has to raise more than $12,000 a week every week of his six-year term to stay in office.
To stay within the First Amendment, spending limits have to be voluntary, meaning there have to be inducements to comply. The cleanest of these would be some degree of public finance, as already occurs in presidential campaigns. At least for those who volunteer, there can be adjustments in the sources or mix of private funds as well. Without offending the First Amendment, better controls can be placed on soft money, the large sums collected and spent outside the present rules. No one wants a sanitized Congress, but this one is too close to bought -- it is almost forced to be -- for either its own good or the country's. Is it too much to ask the glossy beneficiaries of the present system to change it? To hear the earnest protestations of the leaders of both parties, it's the time -- and there's still time -- for reform.