Campaign Reform: Maybe Bill And Newt Had Their Fingers Crossed

It was the handshake that warmed the coldest hearts in New Hampshire. At their historic appearance on June 4, President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich pledged to create a bipartisan commission to break the political logjam blocking campaign and lobbying reform.

Well, so much for: Read our grip. That rare moment of conciliation is gone. Deadlock is back. Reformists in both parties say attempts to limit the corrupting influence of money in politics is unlikely this year. "The handshake has dissolved," laments Representative Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.).

PEROT FACTOR. Although his reaching out to Clinton was a spontaneous gesture, Gingrich has quickly realized that the idea of a blue-ribbon panel is a convenient delaying tactic that could push campaign reform past the 1996 election. And Clinton, who has never followed through on his pledge to overhaul campaign financing, seems unwilling to expend the political capital needed to pass major reform.

There's a simple reason why the issue is low on the Speaker's agenda. Since seizing Capitol Hill, the GOP has been raking in far more money from special interests than the Democrats. Last year, for example, Republicans demanded an end to political-action committees, but now that the money tide has turned, Gingrich sees no urgency. "There is zero [grassroots] pressure for campaign reform," he says.

But a flash storm of protest could take the Speaker by surprise. Ross Perot and his followers see the GOP leadership's reluctance to curb special-interest money as a sign that Republicans are no more committed to reform than the old Democratic majority. "It's like watching a person who's addicted to drugs or alcohol and can't admit he has a problem," snaps Lois Rozet, a United We Stand America activist. "If they don't deal with this issue, the public will rise up again."

That's no idle threat. Independents and Perot partisans supplied the margin for the GOP's takeover of Congress, and their defection could cost Republicans dearly. Many new GOP lawmakers believe voters won't credit the party for revolutionizing government if it stonewalls on political reform.

Still, Clinton unwittingly gave cover to Republicans who would drag their feet: By agreeing to a study, he undercut bashing of Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) for resisting change. One reformer, Senator Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.), derides the commission as "a great leap sideways."

Meanwhile, GOP reformers are getting restless. Representative Linda Smith (R-Wash.), author of a ban on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, teamed up with the Perotnistas to back a reform package on June 26 after being rebuffed by House leaders. "I asked nice, I followed the rules, and they don't want to address it. The only chance is if public pressure becomes great enough," she says.

Perot may turn up the heat by flogging the issue at an upcoming United We Stand convention that most Presidential hopefuls will attend. Hill insiders predict the GOP will respond by passing watered-down lobbying reform before the election. The plan likely will curb gifts and require greater disclosure of lobbyists' expenses.

Yet even Perot isn't likely to prod the GOP into comprehensive campaign-finance legislation in this Congress. Having proposed a balanced budget and slashed committee staffs, Republican leaders feel the party is inoculated against attacks that it's a defender of business as usual. Their hope: to delay real reform until 1997 when a GOP Congress and President can rewrite laws to freeze their advantages. The risk is that the public will take reform more seriously than the leadership does--and vent its anger in the voting booth.

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