CAMPAIGN finance reform has become like a rabbit-in-the-hat magic trick. Now you see it, now you don't. And even when you see it, it seems too fake to believe.
Tucked away deep inside President Clinton's 81-minute long State of the Un-ion address, among a long list of to-dos and not-to-dos for 1995, was the usual call for campaign finance reform.
Despite two decades of wrangling and public disgust, the current ``state of the art'' is an ineffectual hodgepodge of restrictions on the amount of donations from individuals, corporations, and political action committees. Republicans and Democrats alike have eluded the best of intentions with loopholes, ``soft money'' from their parties, and bundling of donations.
Public debate about campaign finance reform has proceeded in deep ignorance of how other democracies confront the issue. Yet a comparative approach sheds new light on potential solutions. A survey of rules and practices of the democracies of Western Europe, Canada, Japan, Israel, Ausralia, and New Zealand reveals the following approaches: (1) outright restrictions on the amount of campaign spending for legislative races; (2) restrictions on the amount of donations; (3) public financing of elections; and (4) free media access to candidates and parties, coupled with a prohibition on paid political advertisements.
Some countries combine several of these, a few use all four. The United States is the only one of the 20 that utilizes just one of these practices for legislative elections, namely, restrictions on the amount of donations.
Canada, France, New Zealand, and Britain place firm limits on candidates' campaign spending. The ceiling for legislative candidates is $6,200 in New Zealand, $15,000 in Great Britain, $22,000 in Canada, and $75,000 in France. Belgium, Spain, and Israel restrict the amount of ``soft money'' campaign spending by parties. In the US there are no such limits, and costs for legislative races often exceed a half a million dollars.
Opinion polls show that the US public favors restrictions on campaign spending, and Mr. Clinton's State of the Union message called for Congress to ``cap the cost of campaigns.'' Congress actually passed such a law in 1974, but soon after an unlikely coalition of conservatives and civil libertarians filed suit, challenging the law as a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech.
THE subsequent US Supreme Court decision, Buckley v. Valeo, ruled that money is speech and not subject to restriction by the government. The court not only struck down limits on candidates' expenses, but also opened up a gaping loophole when it did away with limits on so-called ``independent expenditures'' - better known as ``soft money'' - spent on behalf of a candidate rather than donated directly to the candidate. This decision has shaped and distorted subsequent attempts at campaign finance reform.
It is impossible to underestimate the damaging effects on public policy caused by the Buckley ruling. Without the ability to cap campaign expenses candidates must spend greater and greater amounts of time fund-raising. Candidates become beholden to their major donors, who because of the ``soft money'' loophole are able to circumvent any restrictions on maximum campaign donations.
Many voters have become disgusted and cynical, perceiving their democracy to be ``for sale'' to the highest bidder.
Another great casualty of Buckley is public financing of elections. Most of the 20 liberal democracies have some form of public financing for legislative candidates, but despite several attempts Congress has failed to pass such a law. In the absence of any ceiling on campaign expenses, and with the costs of campaigns skyrocketing, it's unlikely that the public - already in an antigovernment mood - is going to give candidates a blank check at its own expense.
Many within the legal community believe that Buckley should be overturned. For this reason the National Voting Rights Institute of Cambridge, Mass., has filed a lawsuit targeting what it calls ``the wealth primary.'' Citing such evidence as statistics showing that 1992 congressional winners spent on average $543,000 and losers only $201,000, backers of the lawsuit hope to challenge the validity of Buckley v. Valeo.
While the First Amendment guarantees free speech, say the litigants, the 14th Amendment guarantees ``equal protection for all,'' including free speech for all, not just those who have the most money.
The fourth type of campaign finance reform practiced in the other countries, free access to the media, could greatly reduce campaign costs. Yet the United States is alone among the 20 democracies in not offering this type of support to parties or candidates. Fifteen of the 20 nations also prohibit paid political advertisements as a way of keeping the playing field even.
Those who are serious about wringing money out of politics would do well to pay attention to the examples of other countries. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.