News Analysis: Will the Public Force Action on Campaigns?By Helen Dewar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 13, 1997; Page A06
Republicans won the latest battle over campaign finance reform last week, but the war slogs on with no end in sight as long as money pours into the system, reformers try to control it, both sides perceive political gain and the public tunes out on the whole thing.
But the billís supporters vowed to continue fighting, taking solace from the fact that a majority of senators although eight short of the 60 needed to end a filibuster voted to press on with the legislation. They said they will force votes "again and again and again," even to the point of disrupting Senate operations if Lott refuses to budge.
With that, they left for a week-long recess, during which many of them will test the waters at home for any change in the political currents.
"We currently face a protracted floor standoff on this issue," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), one of two Republican moderates who tried unsuccessfully to begin the process of compromise before the last vote of the week. This, she added, is "not in the best interest of the public or of the Senate."
A key problem is that Republicans consistently beat Democrats at the fund-raising game and are continuing to do so in the two-year cycle leading up to the 1998 congressional elections, meaning that Republicans will never cease to protect their edge and Democrats will never stop trying to blunt it.
Another is that incumbents of both parties are reluctant to tamper with a system that has put them in office. This helps to explain why some Democrats appear more eager to score political points than to win passage of legislation that might actually change the rules of combat in favor of challengers.
A major unresolved question is whether the now largely passive mood of the country will change enough perhaps in response to continuing revelations of abuses from the 1996 campaign to scare lawmakers into acting lest they be held accountable for inaction at their next election.
So far, there are few signs of this happening.
Nearly a year of horror stories about Democratic fund-raising excesses has failed to put much of a dent in President Clintonís popularity ratings, and they certainly have not lit any fires under the Senate.
Still, there is some wariness among lawmakers who recall how quickly Congress spun around after constituents reacted negatively to perceived excesses of its newly elected Republican majority in 1995, leading to approval of a minimum wage increase, expansion of health care insurance coverage and other similar initiatives before the 1996 elections.
As seen by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a leading foe of efforts to control campaign fund-raising, there is no risk for Republicans in opposing the latest reform proposal, sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), which focuses mainly on banning unregulated "soft money" contributions to political parties.
"This has been a plus for us, not a minus," said McConnell, noting that it brought rave reviews at a recent conference of conservatives who welcomed it as a sign that Republicans were "standing up and showing some spine" in fighting against "putting the government in charge of political discourse."
Energizing the partyís base of support among conservatives is especially important in low-turnout off-year elections such as the one facing Congress next year, said McConnell, who is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which recruits candidates and raises money for them.
McConnell also makes this historical point: He led a successful filibuster against a Democratic-sponsored campaign finance bill shortly before the 1994 elections, when voters tossed out the Democrats and elected the first Republican-controlled Congress in a half-century.
Besides, he added, "I donít think itís an overstatement to say that no candidate has ever won or lost an election on this issue."
Lott also brushed off suggestions that Republicans might be hurt by blocking the legislation. Joining with McConnell in portraying the McCain-Feingold bill as a threat to free speech in the political marketplace, Lott told reporters he had no qualms about his role in scuttling it. "I am proud to accept responsibility for protecting the First Amendment," he said.
McCain, Feingold and other reformers see a decidedly different set of political dynamics.
"Itís very damaging that we didnít act," McCain said. "You can argue over how much people care about the issue, but you canít argue that an overwhelming majority of the American people ... think the system is broke and want it fixed."
McCain said the Senate failed to act on his bill because "there isnít enough public pressure yet" but predicts that the pressure could build if his own party continues to block action on the legislation.
Even in the short run, the costs for the GOP could be high, he argues. It means "every time another scandal unfolds, the president can respond that itís Congressís fault" because it failed to act on reform legislation a theme Clinton road-tested in a speech Wednesday in Newark.
Feingold sees the struggle in even more critical terms for the Republicans. "I think that thereís sufficient concern out there [in the country] that, if the president puts a spotlight on it, if thereís some drama connected with it, it could ignite the feeling that is already there," he said.
"I can see the majority in both houses changing over this issue if they [Republican foes of the bill] continue to brag that they have the control, they have the money and theyíre not going to do anything," he added.
Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution and an advocate of campaign reform, suggests that obituaries for the issue are premature.
The real question is "which side is worried more about how the issue may be framed in the next election," and Republicans could be vulnerable if the billís proponents keep up the pressure, he said. "If they can keep it alive through guerrilla tactics and force Republicans to keep voting against reform, you run the possibility of making Republicans nervous and forcing negotiations" on a bill that could be enacted, Mann added.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company