Latest Effort to Retool Election Spending Laws

Bill to limit fund-raising poses a dilemma for senators

In a bid to address the public's growing cynicism about the role of big money in politics, a bipartisan group of US senators will attempt to pass the most sweeping changes in the nation's campaign spending laws in 22 years.

In a vote scheduled for today, the Senate will decide whether to break a filibuster by opponents of the reform bill and allow the measure to proceed to a vote. If the measure fails, the window for reform is effectively closed for the year.

Sponsors say the bill - which would ban many types of contributions and reward candidates who abide by voluntary spending curbs - would reduce the influence of "special interest" money in politics. Opponents say the only way to dilute the power of big donors is to lure more money into the process.

Today's debate will reignite long-standing arguments about the proper role of money in a democracy and Congress's ability to regulate itself. But it will also present the best opportunity in years for lawmakers to address the notion that government can be sold to the highest bidder.

The Senate bill, sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona, Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee, and Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, would establish a series of state-by-state campaign spending limits, using population as the basis for determining the ceilings. Candidates who agree to abide by them would receive special favors such as free television time and discounted rates for TV advertising and direct mail.

The bill would also require congressional candidates to raise 60 percent of their funds from their home states or districts, limit anonymous "soft money" donations to national parties, ban all contributions from political action committees (PACS), and cap the amount of personal funds any candidate can spend at $250,000.

A 'Catch-22' for lawmakers

For lawmakers, the choice is wrenching. A vote in favor of the bill insulates them from criticism that they have been co-opted by monied special interests. Yet, if they pass the bill, lawmakers could shut off the reliable stream of election cash from PACS that most rely on.

The timing of this debate, just months before an election, has raised the volume. Aides say recent closed-door "listening sessions" held by Republican congressional leaders have been crowded and snarly. Lawmakers who have become champions of campaign finance reform, one staffer says, "are not the most popular kids on the block."

Yet many of these crusaders, like Mr. Feingold and Washington Rep. Linda Smith (R), don't seem to care. They were elected to Congress on the promise that they would eschew the beltway culture and work to change the way influence is peddled here. The resulting fight muddies all the usual political categories, joining Democrats and Republicans, veterans and freshmen, and Southerners and Northeasterners in unlikely alliances.

Are campaigns too expensive?

Reformers argue that new legislation would help break the stereotype that anyone seeking office must be independently wealthy, cozy up to big money, or possess an extraordinary tolerance for fund-raising. They note that the average cost of a successful Senate campaign in 1994 was $4.3 million.

"It's time we level the playing field so that all Americans wishing to run for office are not placed at an economic disadvantage with the incumbents in Washington," Mr. McCain says.

Opponents of the legislation, led by Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell (R), call it an "entitlement program for politicians." They say the real problem is not current law but the perception among voters that politicians are so easily corrupted. He argues that because the current system limits individual contributions to $1,000 and PAC contributions to $5,000, no single donor can possibly buy a candidate with one check.

"It takes a whole lot of people contributing for all kinds of reasons to fund a modern congressional campaign," he says.

But the strongest argument against reform, McConnell and others argue, is constitutional. The Supreme Court has ruled in the past that political contributions are a form of protected free speech and, therefore, cannot be banned.

Besides, opponents of the bill say, it's ridiculous to suggest that PACS, which are basically groups of like-minded voters bundling their contributions for maximum impact, are an evil force. As long as candidates and national parties are forced to disclose the sources of their funding, they say, the money should flow freely.

McConnell argues that just as some voters lick envelopes and place campaign placards on their lawns, others participate in the political process by writing checks, an instinct that should be encouraged, not limited. Americans spend less on campaigns than on yogurt, bubble gum, or movie popcorn, critics of reform note, despite the fact that elections have a much larger impact on their lives.

A Senate bill to reform campaign fund-raising is an 'entitlement program for politicians,' opponents charge.

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