THIS IS weaning weak in the Senate. Campaign finance reform -- a bill to obviate the money chase by setting campaign spending limits -- will finally be on the floor. As part of the debate, Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) is also said to be contemplating a test vote to ban honoraria.
The problem with both is the same: the Senate swims in a sea of outside money. If the money were stuffed into senators' pockets in the old-fashioned way, as retainers, everyone would be suitably indignant. We are asked to believe that the sophisticated modern system of transferring the same sums in the form of putative speaking fees or campaign contributions is different. It is, but not as different as its defenders both in and out of the Senate would like to believe.
Honoraria have let Congress pad its income without seeming to vote itself an increase in pay. The system is rotten; congressional pay should come from the public and not, as perhaps an eighth now does, from the interest groups whose legislative fortunes Congress then controls. The House did the right thing last year when it mustered the courage to replace honoraria with a pay raise. A posturing Senate refused to do the same. Now the issue returns to dog it in an election year. Honoraria are part of what got Sen. Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.) into the trouble that led the Senate to censure him last week. The system threatens the reputation of others as well; a story in this newspaper yesterday described how senators aren't just paid when invited to speak but solicit the invitations when they're going to be in the neighborhood or need the money. Another way of saying that is that they shake down the interest groups -- not exactly the way you want a senator spending his time. We hope Sen. Dodd wins.
As to campaign finance: office costs too much. The price has been bid up in part by the very operatives who now claim that price controls would limit free expression. The need is for limits, which the Supreme Court says for First Amendment reasons have to be voluntary; for some form of limited public financing to induce candidates to abide by the limits; for some shifts in the present mix of funds (less from PACs, for example); and for controls on the so-called soft money given outside the scope of present regulations. There has been some movement on the part of both parties to narrow their prior differences. A deal could be struck that would disadvantage neither yet create a better system. It depends in part on leadership; the same is true in the House, where yesterday the Democrats also finally produced a party position.
It may be true that both houses have now carefully waited too long to resolve the campaign finance issue this year. That's not an excuse for dropping it. The further along it gets, the easier may be enactment another time. In some respects Congress is supposed to be a beholden institution, but it has become too much so. These bills on honoraria and campaign finance will help restore lost balance.