Hokum on fund-raising reform

I spent years traveling the highways and byways of America, talking to people along the way in large and small communities and out in the rural areas. We political writers called this, "keeping our ears to the ground." It kept us close to what people really believed.

I'm not out and around like that now. But I'm sure as I can be that I can sniff the anger and cynicism out there. I'm not just talking about public disgust over moral lapses among our leaders. I'm sure I can hear the voters from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore., shouting at the top of their voices: "Let's stop this buying of the presidency."

Yet, despite polls that indicate a strong majority of Americans favor campaign-finance reforms, there is little indication that Washington lawmakers are going to react to this widespread and, I think, growing voter outrage. At a Monitor breakfast the other morning the two prime movers of such legislation, Republican Rep. Chris Shays and Democratic Rep. Marty Meehan, weren't too hopeful of moving their bill to passage.

"I'm apprehensive," said Mr. Shays.

"I'm nervous," said Mr. Meehan.

Why aren't members of Congress responding to increasing voter unhappiness over presidential and other candidates collecting all this money for their campaigns? Because those incumbents who would have to act if fund-raising restrictions are to be applied like it the way it is. They believe they need all these millions to stay in office and that they've found this present fund-raising system works for them.

Oh, yes, most members of Congress will tell their constituents they favor some kind of fund-raising reform. Democrats are particularly vocal about it. And, actually, a majority of House Democrats are behind the Shays-Meehan bill.

But journalist Mark Shields cut through the smoke and mirrors in the Democrats' intention to vote for reform when he asked Democrat Meehan: "How many of those Democrats would vote for reform if they thought it had a chance of passing the Senate?" (It is quite apparent that, as of now, a reform bill of this kind passed in the House would die in the Senate. The Senate's chief proponent of this reform, John McCain, told us at a breakfast recently he's nearly a dozen votes short. That suggests his support has dwindled since the last session when, at times, he said he needed only four more Republican votes for passage.)

Anyway, Meehan replied to Mr. Shields with a big smile. He said he wasn't going to answer that question. He knows - and any close observer of the congressional scene knows - that a lot of his Democratic supporters for reform would drop that backing in a Washington minute if they thought anything would come of that legislation. The Democrats hope to keep the status quo as much as do the Republicans. They just want the voters to think that it is the Republicans who are the villains, that they are the ones who are killing reform.

But political observers remember well that Bill Clinton put campaign-finance reform at the top of his list of promises when he ran in 1992. He even had a Democratic Congress for his early years in office, but he didn't push reform, and the Democratic Speaker and majority leader didn't give reform a real priority.

So here we are: knee-deep in political hokum of the first order. Oh, I'm convinced that Shays, Meehan, McCain, and some others are sincere in their efforts to bring about reform. But beyond them we've got a lot of lawmakers who are playing games with this extremely important issue.

And my reading of the public is that the American people are well aware that their representatives are saying one thing and doing another on fund-raising reform. And this only adds to the voter cynicism that shows up in increasing quantities in every poll that measures public attitudes toward Congress.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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