Campaign Reform: What's Best?

CAMPAIGN-FINANCE reform is a bit like the weather: Everybody complains, but nobody does anything about it.

There's no question that large numbers of Americans are deeply disturbed about the way campaigns are funded. They might be surprised to learn that most Washington politicians dislike the current system - which often reduces them to endless rounds of tin-cupping dinners - as much as the voters do.

So why doesn't somebody do something, already?

Reform is difficult because the issue is complex, and no one has yet come up with a solution that doesn't give unfair advantages to one side or another. It's worth remembering that the current system for financing campaigns is itself the result of comprehensive financing ''reforms'' implemented after Watergate. People may not like those $5,000 donations by political-action committees (PACs), but at least under this system, the public can find out where the money comes from.

In the ''bad'' old days, there was often no way of knowing who was backing whom or how much money was involved. One rich donor could keep a candidate's campaign afloat - and that was true of politicians on the left as well as the right.

That's the problem with all campaign-finance proposals: They have serious unintended consequences. It's all well and good to say that the amount any one donor can give to a campaign should be limited, but that also limits the ability of party dissidents or non-mainstream candidates to reach the public.

Democrats argue (in public, anyway) that big business's influence should be limited (although they'll rarely turn down a corporate donation).

Republicans counter that if that's so, then big labor unions' monetary and in-kind donations to Democrats should be capped as well (although in most cases they'd be happy to be on the receiving end).

Another recurring idea is limits on the amount a campaign can spend. But that gives unfair advantages to incumbents, who already have the name-recognition challengers can't get without a lot of advertising. And if the limit is set too low, it can be very difficult for either side to reach the voters - as some complained was the case in Kentucky last week. Not to mention the constitutional free-speech issues such a limit raises.

What about free broadcast time - the system adopted in many other countries? On first examination, this seems like a good idea for equalizing politicians' time before the public. But how many Americans are going to watch a political broadcast when ''Monday Night Football,'' ''Friends,'' or some other big-audience show is pulling viewers to another channel? How many watched the recent WMUR-TV GOP candidate forum in Manchester, N.H., broadcast nationally on CNN.

In addition there's the matter of whether the government has the right to take time away from private broadcasters without paying for it?

That doesn't mean Congress shouldn't keep trying. President Clinton and House Speaker Gingrich shook hands on an agreement last September in New Hampshire to set up a commission to reform campaign financing. The commission doesn't exist yet, although last week Mr. Gingrich finally proposed creating a 16-member bipartisan group after repeated prodding from the White House.

A bill introduced by Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin appears to be garnering support on Capitol Hill. It would place voluntary limits on spending in congressional campaigns and reward candidates who abide by them with free and discounted TV time. It would also restrict giving by PACs, and ban ''soft money'' - unregulated donations given directly to political parties by unions and corporations. Congressional candidates would also have to raise 60 percent of their campaign funds from people living in their home state.

We support passage of this bill, but we're not fully convinced that its reforms will lead to squeaky-clean politics. Cleaner politics, maybe. But ingenious candidates of all persuasions will find ways to maneuver around whatever system is in place. Campaign reform, like other political reforms, is a continuing process. It requires public vigilance, generation after generation.

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