Two simple facts help make sense of Congress’ current campaign finance conundrum: More money is flowing into party coffers than at any time in history, and Republicans continue to raise significantly more than Democrats.
Even as poll after poll shows that Americans favor an overhaul of the campaign finance system, Senate Republicans agreed to schedule a debate on reforms only after President Clinton forced their hand.
And even after seven weeks of troubling testimony before a Senate panel that exposed the seamy side of money and American politics, resistance from both parties makes the chance of meaningful reform remote.
Reformers had hoped that the tawdry tales coming from the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee’s inquiry would galvanize public opinion and pressure lawmakers into the first significant campaign reforms in a quarter century.
The dozens of witnesses who came before the panel produced no shortage of political horror stories.
A businessman testified that he contributed $300,000 to Democrats for no other reason than to buy access to the White House. Buddhist nuns described how they donated tens of thousands of dollars to the party at an event that Vice President Gore insisted was not a fund-raiser. An White House national security officer told how she was pressured by top party officials to approve a presidential visit for a large donor.
But the most sensational charges were never proven. Committee chairman Fred Thompson opened the hearings suggesting that the evidence would show that the Chinese government had tried to influence the U.S. election. The evidence never surfaced, in part due to the absence of key Democratic fund raisers John Huang, Charlie Trie and Johnny Chung, each of whom refused to testify.
In the coming weeks, the public interest in campaign finance reform will be tested. It will require nothing short of a fever-pitched demand for change to force Congress to rethink its institutional bias against changing the rules that got them elected.
Although more than 70 different reform measures have been introduced, few are given any serious chance of passage. The most prominent, and the one that Senate leaders reluctantly agreed Tuesday to take up before the end of November, is a bill written by Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., which would essentially get rid of “soft money.”
It is soft money - the term given to unrestricted donations given to the political parties - that is at the root of most of the controversies in the most recent election.
“Most, if not all, of the fund-raising practices in 1996, illegal and legal, that we find reprehensible are associated with the scramble for so-called soft money,” said Thomas Mann, a Congressional scholar at the Brookings Institute, during testimony Tuesday before the Senate Government Affairs Committee.
“Eliminate the possibility of raising large, unlimited contributions from individuals and corporate and union treasuries, and you remove the primary incentive behind most of the offensive behavior.”
The problem, of course, is that the current members of Congress have all benefited from those contributions. Especially Republicans.
A report from the Federal Election commission released earlier this week showed that during the first six months of 1997, Republicans raised $21.7 million in “soft money” while Democrats took in $13.7 million. For both parties, the sums represented record amounts.
Those numbers make it easy to understand why all 45 of the Senate’s Democrats, and only three Republicans, support an end to those donations.
The measure needs support from at least two more Republicans to receive the 50 votes it takes for passage (Vice President Gore would be expected to break a 50-50 tie by voting in favor).
However Republicans have threatened to introduce amendments that could peel away Democratic votes, such as a provision that would make it easier for a union member to demand a refund for dues that are contributed to political campaigns.
And a threat by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to filibuster McCain-Feingold means the measure, in effect, needs 60 votes to move forward. McConnell carries additional weight being the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which doles out dollars for GOP election campaigns.
If reformers have a glimmer of hope, it is that media attention to the issue will bring a groundswell of support for reform.
“There’s not going to be campaign finance reform until the American people absolutely demand it,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., another member of the committee. “And I think we have an opportunity in this phase of the hearings to generate that fire.”