ALTHOUGH election reform was high on the leadership agendas for both the Senate and the House, the Congress ended its 1990 session without enacting legislation. This disappoints many advocates of reform because, while never a sure bet, the landscape looked more favorable for an enactment than anytime in the past decade. In fact, both the Senate and House passed bills but failed to get together to resolve the many differences. In any case, they saved President Bush a promised veto since the Democrats would not have jettisoned two features he objected to - indirect public financing and limitations on the amounts candidates and the campaigns they control can spend.
On paper, both congressional Democrats and Republicans had much to gain from a changed election law, and the leaderships of both parties were committed. The last time the law was revised was in 1979, and there is need for fine-tuning if not fundamental change. The public perception of congressional ethics is at its lowest in years, considering the savings and loan scandal, the resignations last year of Speaker Jim Wright and Rep. Tony Coelho, and other matters pertaining to morality.
The new Democratic leadership in both houses in the 101st Congress would have gained much acclaim from enactment of election reform. The Senate and House Republicans sought to avoid negative stances of the past, and in fact moved far from previous positions on political action committees and soft money. The House established a special bipartisan committee. Yet areas of agreement were minimal. House Republicans went further in defining their goals than anyone predicted, while the Democrats procrastinated.
In the Senate, Majority Leader George Mitchell and Minority Leader Bob Dole appointed a Campaign Finance Reform Panel of outside experts. Its report sought to break the previous impasse. Following the panel's report, the Democrats and Republicans came up with their own bills, bypassing Rules Committee action. Then, on Aug. 1, the Senate passed a far-reaching bill which revised and emasculated some of the panel's novel ideas, but in other respects met many of the major changes recommended by reform groups such as Common Cause.
The bottom line for the Democrats - and for reform groups - is spending limits, proposed on grounds that campaign spending is out of control. To restrain high costs, limits would be imposed on amounts candidates and their campaigns can spend. The bottom line for the Republicans is opposition to spending limits on grounds that they would ensure Republicans a perpetual minority position in the Congress. They argue that challengers may need to spend more than incumbents to gain enough recognition to contest effectively. So long as the bill contained expenditure limits, President Bush prematurely promised to veto it, thus affecting further action.
Unexpectedly, the House also passed a bill before the August recess, similarly bypassing normal committee procedures when the bill suddenly came directly out of Speaker Foley's office with many Democrats not knowing its contents in advance. The House bill also contained the candidate spending limits objectionable to Republicans.
There would have been great difficulty in reconciling the Senate and House bills because their differences, particularly regarding treatment of political action committees, were marked and the House bill was much less visionary. Nevertheless, members of both houses can claim they passed a bill.
Barring a lame-duck session in which action could be taken, when the new Congress convenes in January it will start at a high level of achievement because each house has shown it can pass a bill. Both the Senate and the House leaderships now have an investment of time and effort and have proved they can muster support. The stakes are high, however, and some think Congress will not address election reform seriously until after reapportionment and the 1992 elections.