Like an El Nio storm brewing off the coast, the issue of reforming campaign finance is about to hit Washington hard over the next few weeks - again.
The Senate must consider a bill by March 6, and the House before April. Republicans and Democrats on Sen. Fred Thompson's Government Affairs Committee will issue separate reports on questionable campaign-finance practices in the 1996 campaign as early as next week.
But when the storm has passed, it is questionable whether the landscape will have altered. Despite the most intensive examination of campaign-finance practices since the Watergate era - a review that consumed two congressional committees hearing dozens of witnesses over several months - lawmakers have not been able to agree that change is needed, much less what that change should be.
In large part, the stalemate is a result of a partisan divide, as Republicans and Democrats resist proposals that might give the fund-raising edge to the other side. But some of the disagreements are internal, as well.
Still, the current flurry of activity around the issue may produce some movement. The most likely outcome, some say, is some small steps to require that information about campaign donations be made public.
"If it's a fair debate, then we've had our day in court," says Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, co-sponsor with Rep. Martin Meehan (D) of Massachusetts of a reform bill in the House. Otherwise, "we'll have six months of debate and disruption," he vows.
The Shay-Meehan bill, like its Senate counterpart sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, would ban "soft-money" (unlimited contributions to political parties), limit advertising by advocacy groups during campaigns, and require more disclosure of contributors.
McCain-Feingold, supported by all Senate Democrats and a handful of Republicans, stalemated on the Senate floor last fall. Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi has agreed to bring it up again, but is unlikely to draw the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster against it.
Reform opponents generally believe that parts of McCain-Feingold and similar bills violate constitutional guarantees of free speech. Senator Lott may offer his own reform bill, which will likely draw Democratic opposition and result in more stalemate.
But while McCain-Feingold may make it to the Senate floor, Shays says House GOP leaders would allow a vote on his bill "only if they thought they could totally kill it." Instead, he expects them to bring up a measure that would require all political parties and advocacy groups advertising during a campaign to disclose the source of their contributions.
Summing up Election '96
Meanwhile, Senator Thompson's committee is wrangling over the final report of its investigation into 1996 campaign practices. Committee Republicans last week postponed release of the majority report amid disagreements over its conclusions. Some details have already leaked out, indicating that the report is highly partisan and extremely critical of the White House.
Thompson began the hearings with the startling statement that China had a plan to interfere in the 1996 US presidential elections. But the committee was never able to make a link between illegal campaign contributions to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Chinese government.
The Washington Post reported last week that a GOP draft says Mochtar Riady and James Riady, Indonesian businessmen who have a long relationship with President Clinton and made donations to the Democratic Party, "have had a long-term relationship with a Chinese intelligence agency." The draft also reportedly says that Maria Hsia, a Democratic fund-raiser with ties to Vice President Al Gore, is "an agent of the Chinese government" who "has worked in direct support of a [Chinese] diplomatic post in the US." The implication is that the Riadys and Ms. Hsia were involved in some kind of intelligence activity.
A source briefed on the evidence, however, offers another explanation. In both cases, the source says, the words "relationship" and "agent" are used to imply espionage activity of which there is no evidence. This source says that the Riadys have long traded with China, and that to get their goods into and out of the country they have had to make payments to Chinese intelligence officials. Hsia, according to this source, helped the Chinese on some immigration matters, and the FBI closed its file on her in 1994. According to this source, there does not appear to be evidence of espionage on the part of the Riadys or Hsia.
Democratic lawmakers are more united in their report, which apparently accuses both parties of fund-raising abuses in 1996. It blames people close to Mr. Clinton and high-ranking DNC officials for the party's missteps. It also confirms an effort, never carried out, to find donors for Teamsters president Ron Carey's reelection campaign in exchange for DNC contributions by the Teamsters. The Democrats' report, too, criticizes former RNC Chairman Haley Barbour, who persuaded a Hong Kong businessman to guarantee a $2.1 million loan to the conservative National Policy Forum, which then repaid a debt to the RNC as the 1994 elections were under way.