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Lip service.

Change. Reform. Renewal. Blah. Full-force campaign finance reform is also poised to be eviscerated by the halfwayists of Capitol Hill. Last year Congress passed a mealy-mouthed measure that awarded some federal support to House and Senate candidates who adhered to voluntary spending limits and restricted soft money (funds slipped to political parties by the well-to-do, corporations and unions). But the bill only limited--it did not ban--contributions from political action committees. It also did not end bundling (in which a group collects checks from individuals and hands them over in bulk to a candidate). The bottom line: The bill improved the current order but did not rid the system of tainted money. And its shortcomings mattered little, since President Bush vetoed it.

This year there is a fellow in the White House who has called for overhauling the campaign business, and Perot-scared members of Congress realize they have to do something, at least for appearance' sake. But they're starting with the half-a-loaf left over from last year. Now that bill may be too radical for Congressional leaders, particularly those in the House. The reason? If Congress approves it, the President will sign it. Members will no longer be able to vote for reform, safe in the knowledge that nothing will happen. Totally coincidentally, Democratic House leaders are among the biggest PAC-suckers in Congress.

Again, the public-interest community is waiting for Clinton. At a recent press conference, Fred Wertheimer of Common Cause said of the President and Congress, "If he leads them, they will follow." A host of citizen groups are agitating beyond Washington for a reform package that goes further in cutting off private funds and supplying federal money. This coalition includes local branches of Common Cause, Citizen Action, the American Association of Retired Persons, the Nader groups and Ross Perot's United We Stand, America. Advocates of reform, though, are hoping to keep Perot out of the fight; he does not seem to be a fan of spending limits or public financing. Senator David Boren, lead sponsor of the current bill, talks to Perot regularly, apparently to neutralize the billionaire kibitzer.

Still, the details of campaign finance reform are mostly an inside-Washington production, and much is on hold until the President speaks. The White House is pulling together its own proposal to send to the Hill. True-blue reformers worry that Clinton's money-chasers--notably, David Wilhelm, Democratic Party chairman, and Rahm Emanuel, megafundraiser turned White House political director--may have too great a say on the specifics, especially regarding soft money. If Clinton decides to press for real reform and ask legislators to eschew PAC bucks, he must be willing to make a corresponding sacrifice on soft money.

Pending the release of Clinton's plan, the search is on for clues on the President's intentions. The original text of Clinton's address to Congress contained the line, "We should end the tax deduction for special-interest lobbying and use the money to help clean up the political system." Aha--he supports extensive public financing of campaigns, a concept opposed by the Republicans and many Southern Democrats. But when the Great Extemporizer delivered the speech, he left out the second half of the line. Go figure.

This is the season of reform: campaign finance, lobbyist disclosure, health care, economic. It's all connected. One example: Contributions from health-related industries to 1992 Congressional candidates were 20 percent higher than in 1990, when health care was not so hot an issue. Whatever emerges on these fronts, the sunshine soldiers of reform will cry, We've done it, hooray. Check the fine print. Clinton is right; this is a historic moment of opportunity. It should not be wasted. What a pity if the Democratic-controlled, ungridlocked government produces nothing but small change.
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Title Annotation:Beltway Bandits; political action committees
Author:Corn, David
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Previous Article:The crying-reform game.
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