The trouble with campaign reform

This year’s presidential campaign was the most expensive in history — expenditures doubled those of 1992. With elections hinging on media saturation (meaning expensive TV ads) the conventional wisdom is simple: The more money a candidate has, the more likely the candidate is to win.
It is no wonder that campaign finance reform is on the minds of voters — 83 percent want reform of election laws. Of particular interest is soft money’, the unlimited party contributions from major interests like corporations or labor unions. A large portion of these funds goes to specific candidates in close races, often for attack ads. The highly criticized anti-Wellstone ads in the Minnesota Senate race came not from the Boschwitz camp, but from the Republican National Committee, funded largely by soft money.
Contributions from individuals or special interests — hard money’ — is subject to more stringent regulation. But there are loopholes and shady dealings there, too. In October, a Massachusetts businessman was fined more than $1 million for reimbursing employees who each donated $1,000 to Bob Dole. Such incidents underscore the need for campaign finance reform, from the smallest private donor to the biggest corporation.But a contradiction plagues any progress in campaign finance reform, one well-illustrated in the final weeks before President Clinton’s re-election. While Clinton traveled through the country, giving speeches on the need for reform, he refused to comment on questions about certain foreign donations to his own political party. Like many politicians, Clinton turned the electorate’s dissatisfaction with campaign financing into a part of his platform. At the same time he was dependent on the very funding practices he lambasted.
But now that he’s elected, Clinton is in a special position to reform campaign financing. Without another election hanging over his head, Clinton is free of the conflict of interest facing most legislators. This gives the president an opportunity to both clean house and push the reform process forward.
Clinton’s first task must be to directly engage his own problems with political contributions. He says he wants to ban contributions to parties from non-citizens, yet he has evaded allegations about accepting money from John Huang, a Democratic fund-raiser with ties to Clinton, who solicited $250,000 from a South Korea firm. Clinton has refused to comment on his relationship with Huang, and Attorney General Janet Reno has refused a nonpartisan request for an internal investigation of the donations. If these allegations can be laid to rest, the president will have more credibility on the broader issue.
During the campaign, Clinton said that he supported the McCain-Feingold bill, which includes measures to ban Political Action Committees, eliminate soft money, and create voluntary spending limits for candidates in exchange for free air time on television. The bill will be reintroduced to Congress this year, and though some of its provisions are unrealistic, it will open the forum for debate in a non-election year. In that discussion we will learn whether Clinton can lead Congress to act in the public’s interest.