Capitol Lawmakers Slouch Reluctantly Toward Campaign Finance Reform

CAMPAIGN finance reform is like a big bowl of soggy spinach. Congress abhors the taste, but voters are demanding, ``Swallow it!''

Spurred by public fury over Capitol Hill corruption, lawmakers are chewing their way reluctantly through a wide range of campaign reform plans.

Now after lengthy, behind-the-scenes negotiations, the House of Representatives will vote on a complex reform package, probably before the end of April. Senate action should come by Memorial Day.

The package will not satisfy anyone. Outside critics, like Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, say even with new restrictions, the bill leaves wealthy contributors with too much influence.

Even so, President Clinton, who has spoken strongly in favor of reform, would be expected to sign such a bill into law.

Democratic leaders, who control both the House and Senate, have several reform priorities. They would put spending caps on congressional races, restrict millions of dollars in ``soft money'' going to major political parties, and begin limited public funding for House contests.

The final bill will probably also prohibit ``bundling,'' wherein contributors combine checks into a single donation to win greater influence. However, it is likely that the measure will still permit bundling by ``ideological'' groups, such as EMILY's List, which supports Democratic women candidates.

It appears that this year's reform drive will exclude several widely touted ideas, including 100 percent public financing of campaigns and elimination of political action committees (PACs).

One Capitol Hill insider, who admits the forthcoming bill falls short in some ways, says in its defense: ``The new law will only nudge the dominoes around on the table, but it is a pretty big nudge.''

Even on this limited scale, campaign reform makes many lawmakers edgy. Changes in financing laws can pose dangers for incumbents, especially if the new rules strengthen challengers.

Party leaders feel pressured to move a reform bill, not only because of criticism from voters, but because many members of the large freshman class in Congress came to Washington vowing to reform the system. They don't want to go home empty-handed.

Members also hope that moving a reform bill will polish the tarnished image of Congress. Its reputation has suffered in the wake of the House bank and post office scandals, and because of the personal legal troubles of certain House and Senate members.

James Brady, chairman of the Louisiana Democratic Party, tells a story that illustrates the shabby image of Congress. This week, Mr. Brady attended a movie, ``The House of the Spirits,'' in which a character announces that he's running for the Senate - to which his wife responds that all politicians are crooks, Brady recalls. The line brought enthusiastic applause from the theater audience.

``It's sad that we've come to that point,'' Brady says.

Political scientist Norman Ornstein says the moral atmosphere around Washington is so tainted today that when he asks groups of business men and women whether any of them have considered running for Congress, ``people look at me as if I'm nuts.''

Dr. Ornstein says: ``We have a climate now that starts with that premise: that if you are in public life, you are venal.''

Yet veterans on Capitol Hill realize that if Congress truly shook up the system, and leveled the playing field by helping challengers - either with public financing or low-cost TV time - incumbents who now feel secure could get whipped in the next election.

While passage of a reform measure this spring is very likely, it is not certain. To head off delaying action in the Senate, Democrats need the cooperation of at least five or six Republicans. The search for GOP support could force Democrats into unwanted compromises.

Republicans, for example, are insisting that campaign contributions from PACs should be reined in. Currently, a PAC can give up to $5,000 to each candidate. Democrats, who collect more from PACs than Republicans, are reluctant to kill the golden goose.

One answer could be a higher limit on PAC contributions to House races - perhaps $3,500 to $5,000 - while PAC giving to Senate races could be restricted to a much lower figure.

House and Senate Democrats also have serious intraparty differences. House Democrats have advanced the idea of a stiff registration fee on PACs to pay for limited public financing of campaigns. They also have suggested a voluntary $5 add-on for income tax returns - the money to be used to help with certain campaign expenses. The Senate nixes both ideas.

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