Campaign Reformers Try to Seize the Moment

Is this finally it?

Twenty-three years after Watergate forced changes in the campaign-finance system, advocates of further reform are seizing on the exploding controversy over fund-raising in the last election. Many are asserting that the time has finally arrived for a major overhaul.

But getting members of Congress - elected under the current big-money system - to go along will be tough. And unless the public demands it, loud and clear, reform will simply not happen, say reform proponents.

"There's a certain numbness in America about scandal after scandal after scandal," says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a reform advocate who says he has "puzzled" and "grieved" over the public's blas attitude. But, he adds, the stories about the Lincoln bedroom and Chinese donations have seeped into the American consciousness.

And the stories are far from over, says Don Simon, executive vice president of the Washington-based advocacy group Common Cause, which supports Senator McCain's bill to rein in the free-wheeling campaign donation and spending system.

"There will be further exposures of the outrageous role played in the political system by huge campaign contributions," Mr. Simon says. "That is going to translate into a kind of public anger and disgust over the role of this kind of money and the way the political parties and highest elected officials in the country are selling access and influence."

History has shown that reform is doable. The Watergate scandal included revelations of corporate contributions to the Republican Party in exchange for political favors. During the hearings, the public heard stories about donations of hundreds of thousands of dollars - cash delivered secretly in suitcases and placed in safe-deposit boxes - from the likes of financier Robert Vesco and Howard Hughes.

Coming as part of the broader Watergate scandal and its wide abuses of presidential power, the public demanded change. But the times were different in the early 1970s, when anger over Vietnam was coupled with a sense of hope and possibility.

"Watergate came just at the right moment, when Americans were activist," says Larry Sabato, a campaign finance expert at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "We were also more shocked, because we were so terribly naive about the presidency and politics. After a thousand scandals since then, Americans are deeply, deeply cynical."

The reforms of 1974 - which included limits on individual contributions to candidates and spending limits on presidential, House, and Senate campaigns - succeeded in putting the campaign-finance genie back in the bottle. But today, the bottle has been smashed as both parties flouted the law through the use of interest groups' independent expenditures and "soft money" donations to both parties, which are meant for "party-building" efforts but wind up being used to support individual candidates.

Aside from public cynicism, today's reform movement is also hampered by its diffuse nature. One newly prominent group is pushing the television networks to provide free TV time for candidates. Another group has launched an effort to convince the Supreme Court that limits on candidate expenditures should not be considered an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.

Other activists point to a grass-roots movement to reform state election systems through voluntary limits on campaign spending. In the past two elections, 10 states have enacted reform through ballot initiatives.

The most radical measure was passed last year in Maine, where candidates who accept spending limits and agree not to take private money get public financing.

Three Democratic senators are introducing federal legislation that mirrors Maine's system, not because they think it can pass, but to "frame the debate," says Ellen Miller, head of Public Campaign, which wants the Maine system applied nationally.

The Republican Party, for its part, is deeply divided over how to proceed. Senator McCain, working with Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin and backed by President Clinton, is so far struggling to pick up GOP support for his bill. He faces stiff opposition from Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, who calls the bill unconstitutional.

Other observers have noted that, ironically, as the public probe of campaign finance widens into congressional campaigns and into practices that are merely improper versus illegal, the chances of reform could diminish. A lack of focus on the problem could lead to a lack of focus on a solution.

Professor Sabato expects that some kind of "housekeeping measure" will eventually pass, perhaps in 1998. He says it will likely include, at least, provisions to ensure better enforcement of existing campaign-finance laws.

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