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The Gang's All Here

Washington is debating campaign finance, but don't assume that means campaign-finance reform

By Richard Lacayo Time cover

(TIME, October 6) -- There's one thing that the mess over campaign fund raising proves. Even insincerity can reach a critical mass, that point where a heavy convergence of posturing emits a detectable unit of political substance. Something of that kind produced the chain reaction that moved the McCain-Feingold reform bill to the Senate floor last week. What it mainly required was that a President trying to sidestep his own problems bump up against Republicans briefly eager not to look like defenders of a system they have spared no effort in the past to defend.

The first move was Bill Clinton's. Bouncing smartly off the news that Attorney General Janet Reno had started the process that may end with an independent counsel to probe his White House phone calls, Clinton announced he would keep Congress in session until it debated the reform bill. That posed a problem for Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, who doesn't think a system in which Republicans raised $549 million in campaign '96--at least 50% more than the Democrats--needs all that much reforming. He also knows that Fred Thompson's Senate hearings, while intended to fry the other guys, have put both parties in a bad light. So his response to Clinton was hurriedly to schedule the start of debate for last Friday. That adroitly placed him on the side of the angels while tripping up the reformers, who were busy drafting a new version of their bill.

With all the excitement, it was almost possible to forget that this was a bandwagon headed down a dark alley. In the hope of getting something passed, John McCain and Russell Feingold had already agreed to drop ideas like their offer of free television time to candidates who accept voluntary campaign-spending caps. Their bill's main surviving feature is a ban on "soft money" contributions, which pay for general party-building activities as opposed to individual campaigns. But even before the Senate debate started, Republican leaders, including Lott and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, were predicting that the smaller bill would go nowhere. "We'll debate it," promised Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the chief fund raiser for Senate Republicans. "And then we're going to kill it."

That's no idle threat. A Republican filibuster knocked off an earlier version of the bill last year. In addition to McCain, only three Senate Republicans--Thompson, Susan Collins of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania--have joined the 45 Democrats who signed on to this year's model, leaving the bill well short of the 60 votes needed to cut off the filibuster McConnell has sworn to bring against it. But with so much more attention on finance corruption, talking the bill to death would risk a public backlash against Republicans. So before it comes to that, Lott is likely this week to start attaching amendments designed to make Democrats flinch.

Even if it passes, McCain-Feingold is likely to be more useful as a solution for Washington's current embarrassments than as a defense against future mischief. Among the lawyers, fund raisers and campaign consultants who make up the city's election industry, any ban on soft money is expected simply to enhance the importance of campaign expenditures by individuals and special-interest groups. Of the record $2 billion spent by both parties and their outside supporters in campaign '96, close to $160 million came from unions and such groups as the Christian Coalition, the National Rifle Association and the Sierra Club. And unlike political parties, whose donor lists and spending are monitored by the Federal Election Commission, advocacy groups don't have to disclose a thing. "Instead of pushing things out into the open, [McCain-Feingold] would push money into the obscure corners of the political process," says Paul Wilson, a G.O.P. political consultant.

The most likely corner would be the "issue advocacy" ads that boomed in the '96 election. The Supreme Court has ruled that unions and other groups can run as many ads as they want expressing their views on issues, so long as they don't "expressly advocate" a particular candidate. That's one reason why AFL-CIO president John Sweeney had no problem last week calling for a ban on soft money. Most of the union cash in the last election went for issues ads, which a soft-money ban won't reach. McCain-Feingold may try to restrict those within the last month or two of a campaign, but any such limits would be sure to face a Supreme Court challenge.

So long as McCain-Feingold is alive and kicking, a White House strategy group led by senior adviser Rahm Emanuel is brainstorming ways to push it along. That leaves Clinton free to pursue other presidential duties, like raising money to help pay off the $15 million debt his party still faces from the last election. Last week he picked up $850,000 at fund raisers in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Houston. The Republicans, better provided for under the present system, owe $4 million.

--Reported by James Carney, Michael Duffy and J.F.O. McAllister/Washington

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