Firm Up the Handshake

About a year ago, President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich shook hands in New Hampshire and agreed to form a commission on campaign finance reform. Even that mild initiative never flew - confirming the difficulty of getting anything done along these lines in Washington, especially in an election year.

No wonder something much more concrete - actual reform legislation in the House and Senate - has had trouble lifting off. On Tuesday, Senate opponents of campaign-spending limits squelched an effort to cut off debate and bring a reform measure to a vote. That probably dooms all such effort for this year. But the issue itself is far from dead.

In fact, the current presidential campaign will only intensify the controversy surrounding financing practices. The Democrats have filed a formal complaint with the Federal Election Commission, charging that Bob Dole has skirted the law by spending more than the legal limit during the primary campaign. Vice President Al Gore has had a field day chiding Mr. Dole for taking big contributions from the tobacco industry.

Dole and the Republicans in fact do very well raising money from the business community, tobacco or otherwise. Republican small-government, deregulation policies attract corporate largess. But Clinton and the Democrats are no slouches when it comes to raising cash, either. After vigorous fund-raising last year, the president's team was able to air a series of "issue" ads through the primary season, hammering on such themes as the GOP's so-called assault on Medicare and the elderly. And the Democrats had an open field. Dole's spending was for actual candidate ads to fend off Steve Forbes, Pat Buchanan, and Lamar Alexander.

Both camps will spend far more than the limits set by current law. That's because both will liberally use a loophole that allows unlimited donations to parties for use in getting out the vote and highlighting issues - as opposed to endorsing a particular candidate. This is called "soft money," and it's flowing freely, straight from the special-interest coffers that supposedly were sealed by the post-Watergate reforms now on the books.

Is there any real distinction between money spent by the parties for issue ads and money spent to promote their candidates? The corporations, unions, and others who ante up probably don't see much of one. They know only that they're buying a ready ear in the halls of government.

The concerns surrounding campaign-finance reform aren't simple. The spending limits in current law may well be impractically low. There are issues of free speech and fairness - whether, for instance, challengers for president or Congress shouldn't be allowed to spend as much as they need to overcome an incumbent's inherent advantages.

But there's no doubt the current system has come undone, with the loopholes engulfing the limits. In a climate where all candidates will say they're for reform, but relatively few lawmakers will vigorously back it, maybe the idea of a bipartisan commission should be revived. Get a plan together, put it on a fast track for a congressional vote (Dole's idea), and show the public that last year's handshake was more than a photo op.

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