Can campaign finance really be reformed?

As senators debate overhaul, experience shows how hard it is to make reform stick.

Say, just for argument's sake, that architects of campaign-finance reform succeed in their mission - that they ban unlimited "soft money" contributions to national political parties, which poured in a record-shattering $480 million during the 2000 election cycle.

Will the appearance of corruption - and the opportunity for actual corruption - fade? Will public faith in politics be restored, assured that elected officials are beholden to the citizens who voted for them, and not to monied special interests?

For every reformer who has high hopes for the legislation now under consideration in the US Senate, there's a skeptic who says changing the rules of campaign finance will, in the end, make little difference.

"Money is like water - it will find a way," says Rick Swartz, president of the Washington-based Public Strategies Group, who is working with business groups on campaign reform to craft legislation that President Bush can sign.

Lest they be dismissed as jaded naysayers, the skeptics say, they have history on their side.

What reforms hath wrought

Indeed, every effort to reform campaign spending in the past century has followed a similar pattern: a big scandal, new laws designed to clean up the influence of money in politics, and an unintended consequence.

The stench of bribery in the Teapot Dome scandal, which involved bribery and oil leases in Wyoming, drove the 1925 Federal Corrupt Practices Act through Congress. That law set limits on how much candidates for federal office could spend during their campaigns.

Then, the Watergate probe uncovered secret stashes of campaign cash used by President Richard Nixon's political operatives. That revelation led to the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act, which provides the framework for campaign finance today.

But neither of these reforms produced the deep cleansing of the political process that advocates had hoped they would.

Loopholes in the 1925 law made its contribution and spending limits virtually unenforceable. The Watergate-era reforms eventually led to new ways to move big money into politics, even less accountable than before.

"When we passed new laws in the days of Watergate, we were trying to get rid of the excesses of the early 1970s," says former Sen. William Brock (R) of Tennessee. "But we created a whole new set of monsters - the most pernicious was the explosion of soft money. Some very smart lawyers constantly tested the limits of the system and found there were none."

Still, advocates of overhauling the system are not about to fold up their tents and go home. The current campaign-finance framework has been so undermined by loophole-seekers, they say, that lawmakers have an obligation to at least try to fix it.

For years, Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin have pushed a plan that they say will address the major problems coming out of the 1996 and 2000 campaigns. The McCain-Feingold bill, now under Senate debate, would:

* Ban all soft-money contributions to the national political parties. Parties use these donations, which are not limited or regulated, for party-building and issue campaigns.

* Double the amount of hard (regulated) money individuals may contribute to state parties for use in federal elections, from $5,000 to $10,000.

* Restrict "phony issue ads" by corporations and unions.

* Make it illegal to raise or solicit campaign donations on federal property, including the White House and congressional offices.

Supporters say such changes are crucial to changing the perception that money buys political outcomes. "The assumption that we can be bought - or that the president can be bought - completely permeates our culture," says Senator Feingold.

If soft money is banned, the two main political parties would lose about one-third of their current budgets. That loss, critics say, would undermine parties at a time when issue ads by special-interest groups are eclipsing the message of candidates and their parties in political campaigns.

That loss could be especially keen for Democrats, who have historically had a tougher time raising $1,000-per-candidate hard-money contributions than Republicans have. As a result, some Democrats who have supported reforms in the past are rethinking their positions.

Others say such a ban would force parties to develop more-effective ways to reach the public.

"If you can't get six-figure contributions, you have to pay more attention to individuals than to special interests," says Charles Kolb of the Committee for Economic Development, a business group backing reform.

Now, he says, fewer than 1,000 organizations and individuals give the lion's share of funding.

But critics say that if money is prohibited from flowing to national political parties, it will find other ways to influence politics. And starved of soft money, they say, the parties will lose ground to interest groups financing their own issue campaigns.

"McCain-Feingold won't take money out of politics. It will just take parties out of politics," says Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, who has led opposition to campaign-finance overhaul in the Senate for the past decade.

Unintended consequences?

Another unintended consequence of a soft-money ban could be that parties will recruit more wealthy candidates who can finance their own campaigns.

"The search is on for people who have great money," says Sen. Mike DeWine (D) of Ohio. "There's a perception today that someone who is wealthy enough can buy a seat in the US Senate."

In the 2000 election, 14 of 33 Senate races involved wealthy candidates who contributed heavily to their own campaigns - most notably Sens. Jon Corzine (D) of New Jersey ($60.2 million), Mark Dayton (D) of Minnesota, ($11.8 million), and Maria Cantwell (D) of Washington ($10.3 million).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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