Money Talks, Campaign Reform Walks

The handshake deal between President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich in New Hampshire to appoint a bipartisan commission to come up with political reform proposals was good TV, nothing more. Both parties have been reluctant to push for serious lobbying reform and campaign finance legislation. It's one reason why so many voters are so fed up that they have backed third-party candidates such as Ross Perot.

The pity is that the Republicans, who stormed into Congress to change things, are simply copying the once entrenched Democrats in resisting electoral reform. And for the same reason: Those in power get more money from special interests, giving them a big edge in getting reelected. It's a big mistake. For all the GOP's attempts to reshape the federal bureaucracy and update arcane Capitol Hill rules, voters remain rightfully concerned about the influence of special-interest dollars. Recent reports that Republican lawmakers are relying on lobbyists to actually draft legislation on regulation and taxes--while the groups they represent line up to contribute to the GOP's 1996 coffers--only reinforce skepticism.

The truth is that Gingrich is not a big fan of lobbying reform. He even seems to be backpedaling on campaign reform. Two years ago, Newt pushed to eliminate political-action committees. But now that Republicans are winning the lion's share of PAC contributions for the first time in decades, he is less enthusiastic. He told BUSINESS WEEK on May 26 that the House would turn to reform issues "eventually," but that other problems came first. In fact, rather than pursuing his deal with the President, Gingrich is now accusing him of playing politics with the issue.

That's a cynical miscalculation. Republican dawdling on the issue will only feed the grassroots movement launched in 1992 by Perot. While his days as a Presidential candidate may be over, the movement he spawned played a crucial role in kicking out the Democrats as kings of the Hill. If Republicans do not satisfy this fiercely independent voting bloc, these angry voters could well turn their backs on the GOP in 1996.

Many of the newer Republicans on the Hill understand the grassroots demand for reform. Led by Representatives Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.) and Linda Smith (R-Wash.), they are urging their leaders to act sooner rather than later. Canady is seeking bipartisan consensus for reform. Democrats such as Senator Carl Levin (Mich.), Representative John Bryant (Tex.), and Senator Paul D. Wellstone (Minn.) are ready to meet him halfway. Handshakes are nice. But it's time for action.

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