The steady flow of stories about questionable Democratic Party fundraising last year should build momentum behind significant campaign-finance reform legislation, such as that co-sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin. Instead, the momentum seems to be dissipating.
The reasons for this are just as bipartisan as the McCain-Feingold collaboration. It might be called reverse bipartisanship - the parties joining forces in the wrong direction.
Incumbents in both parties are well served by the current campaign-finance system. They're in a position to have the most influence on legislation affecting the interests of businesses or unions; therefore they get the biggest contributions. Reforms that cap contributions, make more resources available to challengers, and shut off the free flow of money through party organizations will cut into that advantage.
The Democrats have received the most press concerning their use of the "soft money" channel through which unlimited corporate or individual donations can flood party coffers, ostensibly for use in "party building." But the Republicans have received the most money. Their millions in business contributions last year included $4.4 million from the US subsidiaries of foreign companies, as opposed to $4 million for the Democrats from that source.
Senate GOP leader Trent Lott isn't disturbed by the surge of big money into politics. Unlimited donations are "the American way," he said recently following a Palm Beach, Fla., confab with his party's biggest donors.
Democrats, of course, are no less protective of their big contributors, such as organized labor. Recently, the question of prohibiting the use of union funds for political purposes without the permission of individual dues-paying union members has reemerged. Some Republicans, including Senator McCain, say they may not support campaign-finance reform unless it ultimately includes this prohibition. Democrats are aghast at the idea, suggesting that business should be equally hobbled by requiring stockholders' permission for political contributions.
That's a red herring all around. Closing the "soft money" loophole and reasonably restraining other funding avenues should equally rein in all sources of money. If the will is there, lawmakers can certainly find a way to craft a bill that all sides can live with.
The president and members of Congress should be concerned that the revelations about fundraising abuses could undermine Americans' faith in their democracy. Credible investigation of the Clinton team's shameful dangling of White House perks before political high rollers might help dispel some public cynicism. But more important is strong reform legislation to regulate the money streaming into political campaigns and thus diminish the threat of corruption.