'Soft Money' Race Blows Past Scandals

In the end, lawmakers could not agree on the real problem: a corrupt fund-raising system or simply illegal behavior.

Efforts to change the way politicians finance their campaigns - which came to a head in Congress this week - were severely hampered from the start.

Consensus, even on the nature of the problem, was elusive. Most Republicans say the real problem with the excesses of the 1996 election was illegal behavior (though, so far, no one has been charged with a crime). Democrats say it's the system that's rotten and needs reforming.

In short, you can't fix a problem that you can't define.

Beyond that, a simple look at the numbers reveals another big barrier to change: The Republicans are better at raising "soft money" - unlimited donations to political parties - than the Democrats are. For the first half of 1997, the Republicans have already raised $21.7 million to the Democrats' $13.7 million.

But the public isn't clamoring for change, so why should the GOP cede that soft money advantage - as the McCain-Feingold bill, buried in the Senate this week, asked them to do?

Still, as the Senate, and now the House of Representatives, continues to hold hearings investigating campaign wrongdoing, all is not lost, political analysts say.

The hearings have brought sunlight to the practices of the last campaign - the White House coffees, the big donations that bought access to the president, questionable financial practices. Four years from now, Americans probably won't be seeing videos of the president schmoozing campaign contributors in the Oval Office.

As politicians and party officials raise money for the 1998 elections, they are likely asking themselves: How will it look if what I'm doing shows up on the evening news?

Still, some observers are skeptical that much will actually change. "The parties are still raising soft money with reckless abandon," says Tony Corrado, an expert on campaign finance at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. "It will just be more hidden from view."

Indeed, the Democrats' desperation over money may have only risen since the last election. The party has had to return more than $3 million in questionable donations from the most recent election, and faces mounting legal debts. Clinton stumped for the party at three events Wednesday, helping pull in $1.5 million.

Now that the dust is beginning to settle after the skirmishing over McCain-Feingold, activists and analysts are beginning to tote up winners and losers. For now, many say, the Republicans are on the losing end of the stick. They are seen as squelching "reform," and offered no alternative version for a vote, aside from an amendment to limit how labor unions can use members' dues in the political arena.

Even if polls show the public isn't paying much attention now to the campaign-finance issue, some Republicans are still worried that they've handed the Democrats a golden issue in 1998, when campaign ads can turn a congressman's vote against McCain-Feingold into a sound-bite on how the candidate opposed changing an unpopular system.

"I'd much rather face the wrath of my leadership and some of my colleagues in Congress now than face the wrath of my voters and constituents next fall," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, co-author of a McCain-Feingold-esque bill, at a Monitor breakfast this week.

Other political analysts say the Republicans made a blunder in not offering a limited reform bill that might pass, such as one providing for instant electronic filing of campaign contributions.

Opponents of McCain-Feingold say there's a ready answer to the anti-reform charge. "Candidates can say, 'McCain-Feingold was a bad bill, I favor real reform,'" says Peggy Ellis, a policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute.

In the House, members are generating support for an alternative campaign finance bill, called the Doolittle bill, after Rep. John Doolittle (R) of California. It would lift the limits on contributions to candidates and political action committees, require electronic filing and disclosure of contributions, and eliminate public financing of presidential campaigns.

Outside the Beltway, voters generally had low expectations for change from the start - and not all think that money and politics are necessarily a dirty combination.

"Money in American politics cannot be separated and in the end, it's the integrity of the candidate that matters," says Tom Shellenberg, an accountant in Livingston, Mont., who ran for president last year as a long-shot Republican candidate.

"If you can't raise money, then it's a sign of being a weak candidate," he adds.

In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., plumber Marc Silverwatch says the death of McCain-Feingold isn't big news, and neither are Vice President Gore's fund-raising troubles. Reform or not, he says, dubious money will go into politicians' pockets. "The bottom line is, the government is corrupt," says Mr. Silverwatch.

"We need campaign reform terribly," says Alex McDonald, a retired chemical engineer. But the two major parties "really don't want to give up on anything." His solution: Put it to a vote.

Do average folks think politicians are guilty of wrongdoing in the last campaign? "I don't think they've done anything [not according to] the rules," says Michael Cuneo, a musician in Los Angeles. "Have they done the appropriate thing? Obviously not.... They're all tap-dancing around the rules, bending them to their way."

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