When it comes to campaign finance reform, there is growing agreement that less may do more.
The backers of major bills, whether newcomers to the fight or battle-scarred veterans, are paring down their proposals in hopes of outmaneuvering the opponents in both parties who have stymied more ambitious cleanup efforts for more than a decade.
The efficacy of this slimmed-down approach will be tested in September, when Congress comes back from its summer break and the proponents of change unleash a drive they hope will break the resistance.
The odds are against them. But if they succeed, they need to find a way to assure that Congress takes a second crack at the unsolved problems before the 2000 elections. Otherwise their first-step approach could have perverse unintended consequences. Luckily, there is a way to do both.
The centerpiece of a bare-bones bill, Republican and Democratic reformers and their nonpartisan outside allies agree, has to be a ban on “soft money” contributions to the political parties.
Soft money is the cash that corporations, unions and wealthy individuals gave in staggering amounts last year - more than a quarter-billion dollars - as they exploited a glaring legal loophole in the rules that are supposed to limit contributions to federal elections.
Originally intended as a modest kitty to support grass-roots party activities, such as opening local volunteer offices and registering voters, soft money was converted by greedy politicians of both parties - President Clinton notable among them - into a limitless source of cash for their relentless TV ads.
Soft money was easy to justify in its original guise. But no one can defend the quadrupling of that money between 1992 and 1996 or the fact that, while individual contributions to federal candidates are limited to $1,000, three corporations and two unions each gave more than $1 million in soft money to the Republicans or Democrats.
That is why a bipartisan task force of freshman Democrats and Republicans made the abolition of soft money the first plank of the bill they filed earlier this month. That is why Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Marty Meehan, D-Mass., co-sponsors of the bipartisan bill that both Clinton and Common Cause have been praising, separated the soft money provisions from more controversial parts of the measure, such as spending limits.
Last week, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a co-sponsor of the companion bill in the Senate, indicated he was ready to “scale it down and make it harder to vote against.” His partner, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., is holding out for voluntary spending limits on candidates - at least for now.
But the League of Women Voters, a major nonpartisan advocate of reform, rolled out an advertising campaign last week for a bill that bans soft money but omits spending limits.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker, co-chairmen of a bipartisan panel named by Clinton to promote reform, have taken the same approach.
The problem is that while banning soft money is necessary, given the way both Clinton and the Republicans abused it in 1996, it is not sufficient to deal with the campaign finance problems. By itself, it would further weaken the political parties, while encouraging interest groups, with their political action committees, independent expenditures and issue-advocacy ads, to become more dominant forces in elections, thereby increasing their influence in Washington.
That is why almost all the slimmed-down bills have additional features, including efforts to regulate ads from outside groups, to provide free air time to candidates or to let the parties give candidates more help from legitimate sources. But many of these add-ons are likely to be jettisoned in the effort to shut down the soft money window.
I have great admiration for the backers of these bills, especially the handful of freshmen who stood up to enormous pressure from their party leaders and campaign chiefs to abandon the try.
But many of them recognize this is just a start. It makes sense that if Congress passes a ban on soft money this year, which is still no sure thing, that it also create a commission to recommend further action.
A bipartisan House bill calling for such a commission has gained 77 sponsors. It could look at disclosure, enforcement, independent expenditures, issue ads, free air time and spending limits - all the tough problems - and come up with a balanced set of proposals.
An immediate ban on soft money and a nonpartisan commission whose recommendations would be guaranteed fast-track consideration - no filibusters - would go a long way toward breaking the gridlock on campaign finance reform.
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