Campaign Reform '97

With the president chiming in, members of Congress readying their bills, and various scholars and advocates putting forward their ideas, it seems campaign finance reform might have a credible chance of passage this year.

But it's hard to overstate the resistance faced by this praiseworthy endeavor. Democrats and Republicans have traditionally butted heads on this subject. Approaches favored by one side brought cries of "foul" from the other.

The GOP, long the "minority" party, tended to see its money-raising prowess as a needed equalizer.

The Dems, perennially playing catch-up in the money race, dug in against restraints that could dry up what lucrative sources they had, such as union political action committees.

Those tensions still operate. But they could be overcome this year by political necessity.

President Clinton's announcement that Democrats would no longer accept donations from noncitizens living in the United States, and the party's pledge to stop taking money from subsidiaries of foreign-owned companies as well, were hardly surprising. Those moves spring directly from the fund-raising scandals that surfaced during last year's campaign. Nonetheless, they are a start in the right direction.

The Democrats also volunteered to limit the amounts of "soft money" accepted by their national organization. That's the money that goes into party coffers, in unlimited amounts, supposedly for "party building," rather than to individual candidates. But it typically ends up helping the campaigns of such candidates anyway.

No more than $100,000 from any one source, the Democrats promised. Mr. Clinton went one better, saying the party would forgo all such contributions - as long as the Republicans did the same.

Some Republicans, following the traditional script, replied, "Sure, just as soon as you give up union PAC contributions."

But the discussion of campaign finance reform isn't likely to remain at that impasse this time around. "Soft money" is nearly universally recognized as a gaping loophole in current law that has to be closed. Contributions to parties should be placed under the same limits, and the same strict rules of disclosure, as contributions to candidates.

Also essential is some system of making broadcast time more readily available to candidates, thus alleviating the scramble for money to pay for televised campaign ads. One idea, advanced by the Washington-based Free TV Straight Talk Coalition, is a "broadcast bank" for setting aside radio and television minutes for use by candidates. This would rely on cooperation from the broadcast industry, which showed some inclination in this direction during '96, volunteering some chunks of time. An added incentive, other than civic duty, would be an end to the low rates broadcasters are required to charge for political advertising. In return, broadcasters would pay a surcharge on all such ads sold at prevailing rates, which would be put in the "bank," either in form of dollars or broadcast minutes.

Through such ideas, the outlines of credible reform are taking shape. The goal is to shut the loopholes that feed a public perception of rampant influence buying, while allowing enough money to circulate in the system to offset the inherent advantages of candidates with great personal wealth, whose right to spend their own money has been sustained by the courts.

The politicians know the people are watching on this one. This should be the year that it happens.

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