WASHINGTON — PROPONENTS of public funding for congressional campaigns have just seen their task get more difficult.
Legislation to reform campaign finance passed last week by the Senate does provide for some public funding in campaigns. But to end a three-week filibuster that threatened to kill the bill altogether, Democrats had to bargain away most of the public money, which was aimed at "leveling the playing field" for underfunded challengers and reducing the role of special interests in funding candidates.
That takes the onus off the House to pass a bill providing for public financing, because members know the Senate would not buy it in a final conference on the bill. Most House Republicans and Southern Democrats oppose public financing of campaigns, calling it "food stamps for politicians." Combined, they can sink legislation.
"The House was always the more difficult body" on public money in campaigns, says Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), which tracks the flow of campaign money. "Given the Senate's cave [in] on public financing, it's gone."
Common Cause, another group that favors public financing of campaigns, put a positive spin on the just-passed Senate bill. Even though the "essential element" of public financing was removed, the group said, it contained other praiseworthy reforms, such as a ban on donations from special-interest political-action committees (PACs) and a provision for discount advertising for candidates who agree to limit spending.
If the PAC ban is found unconstitutional as an infringement of free speech, as is expected, the bill contains a backup provision to cut the limit on PAC contributions from $5,000 to $1,000. Common Cause says that if such a limit had been in place in the last election, about two-thirds of PAC contributions to Senate incumbents would have been eliminated.
"Even though they took out public financing, we felt this bill was strong enough to support," says Mike Mawby, a lobbyist for Common Cause. "We knew the choice was either going with this legislation or nothing."
Other public-financing advocates are less charitable. "There is an argument for incrementalism, in not trying to do too much too fast," says Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. "But this bill [provides] very little improvement. And I'm fearful that it's unconstitutional."
A Democratic aide working on the House bill says that, with public trust in Congress at a low, the best opportunity for serious reform is being lost. The Senate-passed bill means "we're left with white men raising money from white men," says the aide. "If PACs are banned, [members] will just look harder for large individual contributions. It's an elitist formulation that excludes people of color and other minorities."
House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington echoes these views, albeit in less-colorful language. He argues that PAC donations are preferable to large individual contributions because reporting rules make the PACs easier to track.
In another sign that public financing is likely doomed in the House, Rep. Mike Synar, a liberal Democrat from Oklahoma, joined with a bipartisan group of House colleagues Friday in introducing alternative campaign-finance legislation. The bill contains no public financing and no spending limits. Instead, it lowers the limit on contributions from individuals to $100, down from $500, and from $5,000 to $1,000 for PACs.
In contrast, President Clinton's bill, which the House Democratic leadership supports, would provide public funding to cover one-third of a House candidate's costs if the contender agrees to limit spending to $600,000. The other two-thirds of financing would be divided evenly between PAC money and individual donations.
Mr. Clinton's bill would pay for public financing by taxing campaign contributions at the highest corporate rate if a candidate did not agree to spending limits. Clinton also proposes to raise revenue by removing the tax deductability of lobbyists' expenses.
The Senate bill bans lobbyists from making donations to candidates and from lobbying members they've contributed to within the past 12 months. But advocates of campaign reform argue that this is less significant than meets the eye. According to the CRP, registered lobbyists account for only 1.7 percent of total contributions to congressional candidates.