Campaign Finance Reform? Oh, Someday Maybe

Campaign-finance reform is a rock that Congress rolls up Capitol Hill every year, confident that it will never quite make it to the top. In 1992, House and Senate Democrats cobbled together a measure that no one liked very much, and members were anything but crushed when George Bush vetoed it. This year, the House and Senate have passed very different versions of "reform," and the prospects are not good that meaningful legislation will emerge from a conference.

Just before quitting for the year on Nov. 22, House Democrats, on a party-line vote, rammed through a proposal that kept much of the current campaign law intact. The House did put a $600,000 ceiling on campaign fund-raising, with total political action committee donations and large contributions each limited to $200,000. But PACs would still be allowed to give candidates $5,000 per campaign, certain groups would be allowed to circumvent limits by "bundling" contributions, and state parties could still raise "soft money." And while the House would create a new public-finance mechanism, it didn't bother to find a way to pay for it.

Republicans deride the measure as an incumbent-protection act. But Democratic leaders say it's all the reform they could get their followers to swallow. "It's a gesture in stages," explains Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.). "If we wanted not to do campaign reform, we would not do it."

A LEVEL FIELD. The Senate passed its own, much stronger version of reform months ago. It will likely be months before serious negotiations begin, and reformers say only President Clinton can force Congress to craft a package that would both reduce special-interest influence and level the field for challengers. "All the pieces are there, but the President has to lay down his own markers and be involved in it," says Common Cause President Fred Wertheimer.

But while Clinton favors serious change, his agenda is crowded with a health-care overhaul, welfare reform, and other economic-security measures. He lacks the time and political capital for a major fight over campaign finance.

In the end, lawmakers aren't ready to let go of a system that has kept them in office. Real change will come only when Congress feels more threatened by voter outrage than by the prospect of cutting off the flow of special-interest money.

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