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A faint hope for campaign finance reforms

By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 19, 1999


It is the most basic and useful advice in journalism and politics: Follow the money.

That is not easy, particularly in national politics. Too much money floods in from too many places, and too often it is difficult to trace the true source.

The post-Watergate laws are about as effective in slowing and tracking the flow of campaign cash as a city storm drain in a hurricane. Now there is some faint hope for change.

First, the U.S. House last week once again approved bipartisan legislation that takes aim at the worst abuses. Most importantly, it would ban soft money, which refers to the unregulated contributions of unlimited size steered to political parties.

Soft money was responsible for some of the worst abuses by both political parties in 1996, and the complete story may never be known. When Attorney General Janet Reno refused to appoint an independent counsel to investigate, it made it easy for key figures in President Clinton's money laundering operation to clam up.

Yet the political parties obviously cannot help themselves.

Republicans and Democrats combined to raise a record $53.6-million in soft money in the first half of 1999. It is clear some Republicans in Congress are swayed by the arguments of GOP national chairman Jim Nicholson. He reportedly reminded House Republicans this summer that the GOP outraised Democrats by nearly $40-million in soft money in 1997-98.

Of course, fundraisers defend soft money.

"Soft money is not soft. It's hard -- hard to get," Republican National Committee finance chairman Mel Sembler told me this summer. "I don't see it as unhealthy."

But clearly some of the biggest soft money contributors are interested in something more than general good government. And individual candidates can be held accountable if they win elections and reward their big contributors. It's next to impossible to draw the same clear line between soft money to parties and individual votes.

Second, even George W. Bush has recognized voters are more sensitive to the influence of big money and that campaign finance reform is not just for policy wonks.

The Texas governor has taken the unusual step of posting daily lists of new contributors on his campaign Web site (http://www.georgewbush.com). That is a smart move in several respects. Bush has received tremendous publicity about his record fundraising, which solidified him as the front-runner. Posting lists of contributors before he has to report them to the Federal Election Commission helps inoculate him from criticism that he is trying to buy the election.

Bush also is listing contributions of less than $200, which he is not required to report to the FEC. That helps his argument that he is not just the candidate of special interests that can send in bundles of checks for $1,000 each, the maximum contribution.

Think informed voters aren't interested?

So many people wanted a peek at Bush's contributors that his campaign Web site almost crashed the first day the list was posted. They couldn't all have been reporters and campaign consultants.

At least two other candidates for president are seriously interested in campaign reform, ensuring the issue will remain alive even if it dies in the Senate. Democrat Bill Bradley advocates a ban on soft money as well as public campaign financing, spending limits and free television time for candidates. And Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona is one of the prime sponsors of the campaign finance legislation in the Senate.

Third, and this may be going out on a limb, there seems to be a growing frustration with issue advocacy ads sponsored by groups trying to disguise their real identity or motives.

Several years ago, Clinton's health care plan was killed in part by the "Harry and Louise" ads sponsored by the insurance industry. Now ads are running in the Tampa Bay area featuring "Flo," who raises concerns about Clinton's plan to offer a prescription drug benefit to Medicare recipients.

"We don't want big government in our medicine cabinets," Flo tells her husband.

That's a cute line in the commercial from Citizens for Better Medicare. But that group is really a front for the pharmaceutical industry, which is concerned that a prescription drug benefit could lead to price controls that would hurt profits.

The House legislation tries to tackle part of the problem created by political parties and advocacy groups that broadcast attacks on candidates that masquerade as issue ads. It would require commercials broadcast within 60 days of an election that used the name or picture of a candidate, or clearly appealed for a candidate's defeat or election, to be paid for in the same way as ads bought by a candidate. That means contributions of no more than $1,000 that are publicly disclosed.

For some, such a requirement cuts too close to infringing on constitutionally protected free speech. But it could be a starting point for discussing changes so voters can better identify the financial backers of attack ads and assess their motivations.

It also won't happen. McCain and his co-sponsor pragmatically removed that portion from their Senate bill last week, which will force opponents to come up with other excuses for blocking the legislation.

Let's be optimistic.

Eventually, some good may come from selling off the White House's Lincoln bedroom to the highest bidder or raising $50-million for an election that is still more than a year away. It just may be in the next millennium.

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