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Jewish World Review Aug. 2, 1999 /21 Av 5759

Morton Kondracke

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One campaign reform should pass: disclosure -- IF CONGRESS WON'T PASS full campaign finance reform this year, as seems likely, proponents at least should try to secure full disclosure of contributions and expenditures.

Polls indicate that reformers are gaining public support for a ban on soft money and public financing plans are making headway at the state level, but almost certainly broad campaign reform can't pass Congress this year.

That's because reform is the subject of a near-holy war. Reformers say they are fighting to save American democracy from the corrupting influence of special-interest money. Opponents claim they are defending the First Amendment right to free speech.

Simultaneously, practical politicians see campaign money as their means of survival in an escalating arms race. Hard money raised in $1,000 chunks can't pay ever-mounting campaign costs, so both parties are hooked on special-interest soft money.

Democrats say they support reform, but they failed to pass it when they held both the White House and Congress from 1993 to 1995.

Then President Clinton shredded existing law in 1996, collecting vast sums of soft money from interests doing business with the government, laundering it through the Democratic National Committee and spending it on ads promoting his re-election.

When former Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., proposed last week that both Democrats and Republicans forgo soft money in the presidential election, he was denounced by Vice President Al Gore's campaign chief for suggesting unilateral disarmament.

If and when they get voted on -- supposedly this fall -- reform plans are likely to win majority support in both houses of Congress, but they will still be filibustered to death in the Senate by 40-plus establishment Republicans led by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

There does not seem to be any room for compromise on the main features of the McCain-Feingold/Shays-Meehan reform proposals: a ban on soft money and a requirement that so-called "issue ads" naming specific candidates prior to an election be governed by federal contribution limits.

However, McConnell and other foes of broad campaign reform -- led in the House by Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas -- claim to be in favor of total disclosure of all money raised and spent on federal campaigns.

Reformers should test their sincerity. Each election cycle, increasing amounts of money are raised and spent in ways that needn't be reported to the Federal Election Commission or the public.

At least 20 members of Congress have established soft-money leadership PACs -- which once would have been derided as "slush funds" -- able to collect unlimited amounts from individuals or special interests.

DeLay has invented a new tax-exempt device -- a political committee established under Sec. 527 of the Internal Revenue Code -- that can collect and spend unlimited funds and needn't report anything.

Various presidential candidates and special interests operate tax-exempt groups under Sec. C-4 of the tax code, which are entitled to engage in educational and communications activities that are highly political and needn't report their donors.

Labor unions customarily don't report their "in-kind" contributions to candidates and parties -- mostly the loan of union organizers to work in campaigns.

And any person or group can form an independent committee to take out "issue ads" that promote or slam a candidate without saying who contributed or what interest is being served.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) and Gore have voluntarily disclosed the names of their highest-level fundraisers -- people who presumably would be highly influential in their administrations -- but there is no legal requirement that such "bundlers" be named.

In the time remaining before campaign reform comes up for debate, reformers should test out the possibility that McConnell, DeLay & Co. will agree to a total-disclosure system.

It should cover any committee associated with a Member of Congress or candidate and any group sponsoring large-scale ad campaigns mentioning a candidate's name in the weeks prior to an election.

Almost certainly, reform foes won't agree to such changes. McConnell seems to believe that only hard money needs be disclosed, not money that does not result in "express advocacy" of a candidate's election or defeat.

McConnell also says it would be unconstitutional, under Supreme Court decisions protecting civil rights groups from revealing their members, to require disclosure of donors buying issue ads.

But since reform foes say they favor disclosure, it's just possible that a measure requiring it could peel away enough senators from McConnell's side to defeat his filibuster.

Full disclosure would be valuable on its merits -- letting voters know exactly who is paying for what in election campaigns. Right now, campaign money is increasingly going underground.

And, most of all, disclosure is an engine of reform: The more voters know how beholden politicians are to special interests, the more they are likely to want to change the system.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


07/27/99: Gore leads Bush in policy proposals

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