Campaign-Spending Reform Shapes Up as Rumble on Hill

JOSEPH BIDEN JR. was only 29 when he learned the power of money to corrupt American politics.

It was 1972. Mr. Biden, a Delaware Democrat, was running for the United States Senate. If Biden won, he would become the second-youngest senator in the nation's history.

With eight days to go, Biden trailed by only 2 points. Advisers told him: Raise some money quickly, keep your radio ads on the air, and you can win.

Desperate for cash, Biden visited some of Delaware's wealthiest businessmen to plead his case. They put the crucial question to him: "Joe, what's your position on capital gains?"

Biden now says, "I knew the right answer for $20,000. I knew the right answer for $30,000. I knew the right answer for $40,000."

But Biden didn't give them what they wanted. As he sadly rode back to Wilmington, Del., without their contributions, he figured the race was lost. Somehow, Biden won anyway - by less than 3,000 votes. But the experience has left a bitter taste, even after 20 years.

"That's the manner in which [campaign] funding corrupts," Biden told a group of fellow senators at a hearing last week. And that is why he is pushing a reform plan, a Democratic bill called S.3, which would use taxpayer money to pay for House and Senate campaigns.

Tom Cronin, a political scientist at The Colorado College in Colorado Springs, says that in American politics, "Money doesn't talk, it shouts." It opens the doors of power for special interests.

Despite all the reforms of recent years, money still plays a big role. In 1992, financiers (read "Wall Street") pumped $3,104,788 into the Democratic Party to help Bill Clinton, according to Common Cause. Hollywood entertainers gave $1,658,880. Real estate interests contributed $955,300. Big labor chipped in $3,695,638.

When the phone rings, can the White House ignore those interests? Hardly, critics say.

Such arguments make many Republicans boil. With federal debt spinning past $4 trillion, with deficit spending approaching $1 billion per day, the GOP says this is no time to turn public money over to politicians to spend on themselves.

Sen. Don Nickles (R) of Oklahoma explains his opposition to S.3: "I support campaign reform, but this is not reform. It is a handout for politicians."

A bill similar to S.3 passed the last Congress. President Bush vetoed it. The bill would cap spending for House and Senate races and limit contributions from political action committees. In exchange, candidates would get partial public financing.

Democrats have put the campaign finance bill on a fast track. A Senate vote is expected in April.

S.3 not only upsets Republicans, but worries some outside reformers as well. Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics Inc., says she has "completely mixed feelings about the whole thing."

One of her concerns, she says, is "soft money," gigantic contributions from private contributors to political parties. She wonders: If Democrats stop soft money from business sources, will they also block it from labor unions?

Ms. Miller also wonders if the Democrats' caps on election spending are too high. As now written, the bill would allow House candidates to spend up to $500,000 in the general election. In Senate races, the maximum allowed for the general election in the largest states would be $5.5 million. The overall cost to taxpayers for an election cycle could reach $500 million.

Republicans, who regard spending caps as a violation of free speech, see two hopes to head off the Democrats.

First, they will propose changes to the Democratic bill to make it more palatable. Leading Democrats say they are open to ideas. Republicans doubt it.

Second, Republicans may filibuster S.3 to death in the Senate. Forty-one votes are needed to block cloture, and Republicans, with 43 members, may succeed.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, leading the GOP fight against S.3, has tried to persuade Democrats to craft a bill that both parties could strongly support.

He has made little progress.

A bipartisan measure might include guaranteed low rates for candidates from broadcasters; a ban on franked mail during election years; a prohibition on most "bundling" of contributions by lobbyists, labor unions, and business people; and controls on soft money.

But majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine says spending limits are a must. "Without spending limits ... candidates will never cease their pursuit of money," he says.

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