THE growing success of term limits, Ross Perot, and the death of gridlock now leave Congress with no alternative but to pass a campaign reform package. That doesn't mean lawmakers have changed their stripes: Congress will not pass any real reform package now or anytime soon. The public knows this. That is why voters are fighting back with term limits.
Sen. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma, the main advocate of campaign reform in the Senate, said, "Unless we pass campaign finance, lobbying, and congressional reform, I think the term-limit movement will gather steam and become unstoppable. The status quo is not an option. If we don't deal with these matters, people will do so with term limits."
Senator Boren's colleagues are uncomfortable with such comparisons, but they know they have to look busy on reform, and campaign finance is the easiest way for them to do so.
Even if Congress passes some type of campaign reform bill, it won't address the fundamental problem of the institution, namely, that it has become careerist: Lawmakers are obsessed with reelection, to the detriment of political courage and public policy. That is why so many people are turning to term limits as the best first step to better government.
And that is why term limits are the reform incumbents love to hate. Congress is afraid to even debate the issue: It will only look bad trying to press forward its reform packages in the face of the people's chosen reform.
Boren and his allies have enough difficulty when it comes to changing the way incumbents raise and spend money, let alone passing a reform bill that will divert the people from term limits. Since 1979, when the last changes in the current campaign laws were made, congressional Democrats have had the luxury of operating under divided government. This allowed them to propose increasingly outlandish campaign reform bills - some calling for as much as 90 percent public financing - and to pass mediocre bills like the one vetoed last year by President Bush.
MEANWHILE, President Clinton, realizing that he can't sell voters an incumbent protection plan, is expected to propose this week a bill that contains cosmetic spending and donation limits. Some Capitol Hill staff members close to the campaign finance bill say that Mr. Clinton's bill is "a sop to Common Cause," and that the president is "more interested in having his campaign promises covered in the first 100 days than he is in a real reform package."
Moreover, the House is still obsessed with the idea that if it passes a reform bill, some lawmakers could lose their seats in the next election - certainly an incentive for short-sighted, PAC-addicted members to stall for time.
Even the provisions of H.R.3, which would give up to $200,000 in taxpayer subsidies to House candidates, make incumbents nervous. Rep. Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey told the New York Times: "Simply capping expenditures will stifle the discussion of issues." Rep. Vic Fazio (D) of California, who as the head of the Democratic congressional campaign organization must raise the millions of dollars Democrats need to run their races, told the Wall Street Journal: "It's not something people are demanding tomorrow, like jobs.... If we have to err on the side of taking more time, we ought to."
The voters may not give them much time. The persistently vocal presence of Mr. Perot and the fact that voters in 15 states have passed term-limit laws that now cover more than one-third of the members of Congress put pressure on politicians to pass some sort of reform bill, even one that protects the status quo as much as H.R.3.
These are not serious reform proposals: They are a smoke screen intended to make everyone think things have been changed, when in fact they have simply solidified the status quo. Any real change in congressional campaign practices, like term limits, would severely weaken the hold incumbents have on their seats. For many of them, such a thought is unconscionable.
So while the Senate begins to try and staunch the impending term-limit flood, the rest of Congress will go quietly about the business of running for reelection, ignoring that the people would rather have - and are working toward - term limits for every one of them.