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Campaign Reformís Uphill Fight

By Helen Dewar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 7, 1997; Page A05

If history is any guide, Mark Hanna, the legendary turn-of-the-century Republican boss, got it right when it came to the enduring power of money in American politics. "There are two things that are important in politics," Hanna said in 1895. "The first is money and I canít remember what the second one is."

This historical footnote, enshrined by the Center for Responsive Politics on the opening page of its "Brief History of Money in Politics," sums up the obstacles faced by advocates of campaign finance overhaul as they head toward showdown votes in the Senate today.

Their bill, aimed at staunching the flow of unlimited "soft money" to political parties, is a slimmed-down version of legislation pushed unsuccessfully nearly every year of the past decade. Details changed, but it always tripped over one hurdle or another — House delays, Senate filibusters, partisan gamesmanship, constitutional objections, a veto by President George Bush and fitful attention from President Clinton.

Once again, the legislation may have the support of a majority of senators but fall short of the 60 votes needed to cut off a filibuster. "We kept winning votes and failing to get a bill," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, former head of Common Cause and a relentless crusader on the issue.

As history shows, money is tough to beat in a democratic market economy that increasingly conducts its political discourse through expensive media advertising that special interests are willing to fund in order to buy influence. As if that were not enough, incumbent office-holders, always searching for money for reelection, are called upon to change the system that elected them in the first place.

Also, many lawmakers say that while their constituents support the idea of reform, they are cynical about its prospects and more concerned about issues closer to their personal lives. What seems to worry many of the legislators now is that voters will later hold them accountable for inaction if scandal spins out of control and prompts people to ask what their officials did to avert it.

The influence of money in politics goes back to the founding of the Republic if not earlier, when, according to a story recounted in the Center for Responsive Politicsí booklet, George Washington bought votes with rum and hard cider during a colonial-era race for the Virginia House of Burgesses. For generations, the quest for money has spawned recurring cycles of abuse, scandal and reform, followed by more abuse, scandal and reform — often punctuated by lengthy periods of neglect, struggle and failure.

Laws were overhauled after Watergate, just as they had been after the excesses of Hannaís Gilded Age. But it is never easy, and it is an open question whether the 1996 fund-raising scandals and congressional probes into them are beginning to produce enough public reaction to force reform or simply contribute to more fruitless struggle.

"The question," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), co-sponsor with Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) of the current bill, "is whether there is sufficient outrage."

A glance back at earlier political cleansing efforts, especially since the Watergate reforms of the mid-1970s, goes a long way toward explaining why the McCain-Feingold measure faces such an uphill fight.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Congress enacted civil service protections, barred banks and corporations from giving directly to candidates, imposed some disclosure rules, outlawed solicitation of funds on federal property or among federal workers and, years after corporate contributions were outlawed, imposed a similar ban on labor unions.

But the rules were often evaded, enforcement was lax, and the money continued to flow, cutting new channels to get around obstacles created by reform efforts. Corporate and labor interests, for instance, continued to throw their weight around through creation of political action committees (PACs) funded by ostensibly voluntary donations from individuals.

Pressure for reform built during the 1960s, leading to approval in 1971 of major legislation, including broad disclosure requirements and a $1 income tax check-off to fund presidential campaigns.

But it was the fund-raising excesses of President Richard M. Nixon in 1972, disclosed in the aftermath of the Watergate break-in, that led to the biggest push for change, resulting in strict limits on spending as well as contributions, public funding for presidential campaigns and creation of the Federal Election Commission to enforce new disclosure requirements.

Some of the most far-reaching changes were short-lived, however.

In 1976, the Supreme Court struck down spending ceilings unless they were voluntary, limits on self-funding of campaigns and curbs on independent expenditures as violations of the First Amendmentís free-speech guarantees. Then, as a result of congressional and FEC action, the way was cleared for corporations, unions and wealthy individuals to pour unlimited amounts of unregulated soft money into political parties for "party-building" activities that often turned into thinly disguised promotion of candidates.

By 1985, agitation for further reform was mounting. Then-Sens. David L. Boren (D-Okla.) and Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) teamed up to push unsuccessfully for a bill aimed at curbing PACs. During 1987 and í88, Boren joined with Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who was majority leader at the time, to push for a broader bill that included voluntary spending limits in exchange for some public funding. That bill set a new record with eight unsuccessful attempts to break a GOP-led filibuster.

By 1990, Boren linked up with then-Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), Byrdís successor as majority leader, to pass a bill that never got through conference with the House, which had passed a weaker version.

Helped in part by embarrassment over a check-cashing scandal at the House Bank, the House and Senate passed a bill in 1992, only to have it vetoed by Bush

With Clinton promising to sign a campaign finance bill but doing little to fight for it, advocates of the legislation continued to press for action through 1993 and 1994, winning approval of different bills in the House and Senate. Foot-dragging by House Democrats put off the final push until so late in the session that Senate Republicans easily blocked further action with a filibuster that could not be broken.

Facing a Congress under Republican control in 1995, Clinton reached a handshake agreement with House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to appoint a bipartisan commission to come up with a solution, but nothing ever came of it. Instead, bipartisan groups formed in the House and Senate, taking heart from victories on other reform issues. In 1996, McCain won 54 votes in the Senate, six short of what was needed to break a filibuster, and the bipartisan push died in partisan cross-fire in the House.

By the start of this year, controversy over Democratic fund-raising practices during Clintonís reelection campaign rekindled the hopes of reformers such as McCain who always believed it would take a scandal to force change. Clinton, eager to focus on something other than allegations of Democratic abuses, weighed in on the billís behalf.

But Boren, who had left the Senate in 1996 to become president of the University of Oklahoma, looks back over all his warnings of scandals to come and wonders why anyone should be so surprised. "The truth of the matter is that not much has changed," he said in a telephone interview last week. "When I listen to the hearings, I ask myself, ĎWhy do we need hearings to tell us all this?'"

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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