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Jewish World Review Dec. 16, 1999 /7 Teves, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Prospects improve for campaign reform -- CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM still isn't a front-burner issue for voters, and it faces deep resistance in both parties, but it's getting a definite boost in the presidential race.

Even more remarkable than this week's scheduled compact against soft money between Republican reformer Sen. John McCain and Democratic ex-Sen. Bill Bradley (N.J.) was the support reform got in last week's GOP presidential debate.

Five of the six GOP candidates, including front-runner George W. Bush, favor a ban on corporate and union soft money, as do both Democratic presidential candidates.

None of this means that reform will become law, of course, even if a reformer eventually becomes president. Both parties want reform, if at all, only on terms that will help them and hurt the opposition. But in another positive development, Sen. Chuck Hager, R-Neb., has introduced compromise reform legislation that might attract enough support next year to break a filibuster and cause Senate GOP leaders to negotiate on the issue.

Polls show that even though campaign reformers McCain and Bradley currently hold leads in New Hampshire, the reform issue isn't at the top of the voters' agenda even there.

Newsweek's poll released Dec. 11 indicated that only 43 percent of likely New Hampshire GOP voters consider campaign reform a "very important" issue -- putting it last among eight issues ranked. The issue has even less traction among voters nationally.

Still, in last Monday's debate in Arizona, GOP candidates expressed dissatisfaction with the status quo and advocated banning at least some kinds of soft money.

McCain, of course, went furthest of all, vowing to "reject any soft money, any uncontrolled contributions to the Republican National Committee or presidential campaign" -- potentially disarming the GOP unilaterally if he were the GOP nominee and Democrats wouldn't go along.

Bradley earlier pledged that if he were the Democratic nominee, he'd direct the Democratic National Committee not to accept soft money -- provided the RNC did the same. Aides to his rival, Vice President Al Gore, denounced the promise even though it was contingent on GOP compliance.

McCain and Bradley will make a joint agreement on the subject this week -- presumably raising the profile of the reform issue, at least in New Hampshire.

Reports are that McCain will attack Gore on Bradley's behalf over the 1996 fund-raising scandal and Bradley will sock Bush for refusing to take public matching money and limit his expenditures during the primaries.

National polls don't indicate that McCain and Bradley are likely to win their respective nominations, however, and neither Bush nor Gore has pledged to forgo party soft money in 2000.

To the contrary, Bush and Gore are counting on party soft money to pay for ads in the March-August period touting their own achievements and criticizing the opposition -- although, of course, soft-money ads can't explicitly urge the election or defeat of a candidate.

Gore, like Bradley, says he favors the kind of campaign finance reform legislation that passed the House this year -- the Shays-Meehan bill that bans unlimited soft-money donations to parties and applies hard-money limits and rules to independent issue ads that mention a candidate just prior to an election.

McCain this year sponsored a stripped-down bill banning soft money and also requiring workers be notified that they may refuse to have union dues used for political purposes.

That bill was filibustered to death by Senate Republican leaders who raise and defend soft money. They support Bush for president, but Bush announced in September that he backs a ban on soft money from corporations and labor unions, though not individuals.

Bush also backs a stronger "paycheck protection" bill that requires union members to give specific advance approval before their dues can be used politically and an increase in individual, hard-money limits above the current $1,000 per person per year.

In last week's GOP debate, religious conservative candidate Gary Bauer reaffirmed that he backs McCain's bill with "paycheck protection," but opposes Shays-Meehan limits on independent expenditures.

"It's one thing," said Bauer, "for somebody to donate $1,000 to one of us, which is the federal limit. But when a corporation or a union can write a $1 million or $2 million or $5 million check to the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, we all know that buys access that no average American can meet."

Candidates Alan Keyes and Steve Forbes also support bans on corporate and union soft money, but no limits on individual giving and full disclosure of all gifts. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, seems to favor no limits on any gifts, but "disclosure, disclosure."

If Bush, McCain, Gore or Bradley becomes president, one could easily see the White House back reform -- as President Clinton says he does -- but have Congress reject it over "paycheck protection" or limits on issue ads.

Hagel has introduced a useful compromise requiring disclosure of issue-ad purchases by TV stations, a $60,000 cap -- but no ban -- on soft money and increases in hard-money limits from $1,000 to $3,000.

Nothing happening this year guarantees that campaign finance reform will pass, but it's a fact that majorities in both houses of Congress favor it, as do a majority of presidential candidates. It's inching its way to fruition.

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


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