WASHINGTON — Campaign finance reform is an American political drama that has been playing out since the days lawmakers wore wigs. Now it's coming to a denouement again - with little likelihood of dramatic change. The cast includes President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, prominent members of Congress, interest groups, pundits and the lesser squires of the media.
Reforming campaign finance is rooted in the idea that elections are becoming prohibitively expensive. This year's races for Congress and the presidency cost $2 billion and only 48 percent of eligible voters went to the polls.
In the view of those who want to reform the system, the present campaign finance laws are scandalous. As evidence, they point to the latest allegations that the Chinese embassy in Washington was a conduit for Asian contributions to the Democratic Party in the 1996 elections. In the view of reform champions, huge campaign spending postulates a pseudo democracy in which only the very wealthy can afford to participate and have their interests attended to by Washington.
"We have a very angry and cynical population in this country," says an official of the liberal lobbying group Common Cause. "Easily circumvented campaign finance laws are a good part of the reason."
Perfect equality of political representation in Washington is probably unachievable. But the authors of the Constitution and the members of the first Congress, undoubtedly intended that voters (18th-century white, male voters, that is) would achieve approximate political parity in the act of voting. "The people are the only legitimate fountain of power," wrote James Madison in Number 49 of The Federalist Papers.
Various cures for allegedly loophole-prone campaign finance laws have been proposed in both houses of Congress. The one at center stage this season is the McCain-Feingold bill. It was written by Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona, Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, and Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee. It would ban so-called "soft money" - unlimited private contributions to political parties as distinct from contributions to individual campaigns. McCain-Feingold would give candidates a choice between public funding with spending limits and a ban on accepting private contributions - or no public funds and unlimited private contributions and spending. Mr. Clinton endorsed McCain-Feingold in his State of the Union address. "Our hope," says Senator Feingold, "is that, without violating the basic principles of the First Amendment and without thinking we could have pure equality in the electoral system, we could do enough so that the average citizen feels he could participate just as a very wealthy person can."
AS part of a 1976 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that money - spent as any form of communication - is the equivalent of speech. The opponents of McCain-Feingold say that it violates the First Amendment and is, therefore, unconstitutional. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky is a leader of the sizable anti-McCain-Feingold forces on Capitol Hill. He is against all efforts to reform campaign finance laws "It is constitutionally impermissible for the government to control the political speech of individuals, groups, candidates, and parties - all of which McCain-Feingold seeks to do," he argues.
Senator McConnell disputes the premises underlying all efforts at campaign finance reform. "They say we're spending too much," he adds. "I say - compared to what?" He claims that the American public paid more money for yogurt than candidates did on campaigns during the last two years. McConnell adds that there is "no evidence" of any widespread sense of political disaffection or exclusion among American voters.
Each side in the debate accuses the other of hypocrisy. Pro-reform legislators and activists claim that their opponents simply want to hold onto the ready campaign money that comes with the present system. Anti-reformers retort that bills such as McCain-Feingold are unconstitutional power grabs disguised as political piety. Pushing through major reform this year will be difficult, despite the rising concern over Democratic entanglements with foreign contributors.
In the end, the 1997 campaign finance reform drama echoes earlier uproars about equality and constitutionality in American history. In 1828 there was popular rejoicing when Andrew Jackson, supposedly a man of the people, was elected president, ending the country's governance by Virginia and Massachusetts aristocrats. In the last quarter of the 19th century, the so-called Gilded Age of vast fortunes and political influence-buying can arguably be said to have inspired a counterreaction of muckraking journalism, militant labor unions, the assassination of one president, William McKinley, and the progressive reforms of another, Theodore Roosevelt.
The social climate and issues of 1997 are far less extreme than the past dramas. But the argument about campaign finance reform - whichever side you're on - is an intrinsic extension of American history.