Campaign Reform Is Getting Pecked To Death

In May 6, three days before Bill Clinton unveiled his much-ballyhooed campaign-reform package, he attended a black-tie Democratic Party bash packed with Beltway lobbyists. Five days later, the apostle of reform hit a blittery New York gala filled with high rollers. It's a strange way of showing the nation that the White House is committed to the first major campaign cleanup since the 1970s, when Washington tried to mop up after Richard Nixon's Watergate abuses.

Clinton insists he's a Ross Perot-like zealot, determined to change the cash-and-carry business of Washington influence-peddling. But he's going to face a tough sell. Critics say Clinton cut so many deals to enlist Democratic support for his reforms that the package won't solve the problems it attempts to tackle. The complaints come from his own party as well as from the GOP. "You can't call this reform," storms Representative Mike Synar (D-Okla.). "You can call a skunk a raccoon, but it's still a skunk. This doesn't pass the smell test."

What's wrong with Clinton's proposals? Right from the start, he abandoned a campaign promise to end the corrupting influence of political-action committees by limiting PAC gifts to $1,000, down from the current $5,000. Under pressure from Democratic lawmakers, Clinton proposes to impose the cap only on Presidential PAC donations. The gravy train rolls on for House members, who would keep their current maximum. Senators agreed to only a modest reduction, to $2,500.

HIGH CEILING. Nor did Clinton make good on his pledge to eliminate soft money--the unreported donations to slush funds that are used by political parties and other groups to evade contribution limits. His plan only bars collection of such donations by national parties, traditionally a Republican strength. Individuals could still make some large gifts to state parties, as long as they're reported. Other forms of soft money--such as funds used to pay for organized labor's phone banks and get-out-the-vote drives--would be unaffected. "It's a blatantly partisan attempt to put a cap on the types of political activities Republicans gain from," gripes Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

The plan's limits on campaign spending also are riddled with escape hatches. There seems to be a limit of $600,000 per House race and up to $5.5 million per Senate contest, depending on a state's size. But the House spending ceiling is adjusted for inflation starting in 1992, and it permits additional exempt expenditures for fund-raising, accounting, party donations, and legal fees. And candidates with serious primary opposition can spend $150,000 above the cap. The limit is "a joke," says former Democratic National Committee official Terry Michael. Of the 2,593 candidates in 1992, fewer than 100 exceeded the proposed ceiling.

The Clinton plan does try to reduce some of the advantages of incumbency and replace some special-interest money with public funds. It would cap total PAC donations to both House and Senate candidates. The plan also prohibits lobbyists from donating money to--or raising money for--candidates they had attempted to influence within the previous year. And it takes a stab at extending public financing to Hill races by proposing to replace lost PAC funds with tax-financed vouchers for television and print ads.

QUICKSAND. Some reform groups have embraced the proposal as a significant first step toward cleaning up special-interest involvement in federal elections. But even the White House acknowledges its defects. Concedes Michael Waldman, the White House aide who drafted it: "This is not a perfect proposal."

The plan is sure to face stiff obstacles on Capitol Hill. After proposing a slew of new taxes, Clinton will have a tough time winning backing for a taxpayer-funded support program for politicians. In the Senate, Republicans could doom the proposal with a filibuster. In the House, Democratic women, minorities, hard-line reformers, conservative Democrats, and the Old Guard all have gripes. Even if Clinton pulls off a political miracle, his plan is sure to face court challenges on constitutional grounds.

Campaign reform seems to be following a familiar pattern for the young Clinton Administration: A President who came to Washington to shake things up gets caught in the muck of Capitol Hill politics by cutting too many deals with powerful Democratic Hill barons. The result, as usual, is likely to be a watered-down compromise--or a filibuster that leaves Clinton empty-handed. Well, not exactly empty-handed. After all, there's still another fund-raiser to attend.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.