Archive for Friday, April 6, 2001

Funding will shift political picture

April 6, 2001

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— Reluctantly, but unmistakably, the center of gravity of American politics shifted this week.

It shifted away from the unregulated party money that has been the oxygen of the political system for two decades. It shifted away from the common assumption of country and capital that money doesn't merely talk in Washington, it shouts.

For years even the strongest advocates of overhauling the way the nation finances its elections admitted privately that it couldn't be done, that the political system could not sustain such dramatic tinkering, that it was too much to expect the very people who have profited from the river of campaign donations to divert the money away from their own benefit.

And even if such a plan were plausible, these lobbyists without hope would say in their most candid moments, the last place it would start would be the Senate, the legislative house that soft money built.

This week, the Senate bit the hands that fed it and set in motion one of the most unlikely congressional dramas of the age.

The victory of legislation designed to purge American politics from the power of campaign donations is the triumph of a single political man and his steely sense of certitude. But it is also the beginning of a period of great uncertainty for the political system.

The man at the center of this week's action was Sen. John S. McCain, the Arizona Republican who campaigned during the Republican primaries last winter to topple big money from its altar, only to be toppled himself by George W. Bush, who raised more money than any presidential candidate ever. He returned to Washington defeated but not discouraged, and through a combination of threats, entreaties, maneuvers and schemes managed to make campaign finance the issue that simply would not go away.

It didn't, and McCain didn't either, and now the bill that he and Sen. Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat, fashioned to prohibit the parties from raising, spending or transferring unregulated campaign contributions heads to the House and, very possibly, to the White House for President Bush's signature.

The bill has changed along the way it now includes, for example, a provision lifting contribution caps from candidates facing wealthy self-financed opponents but the purpose of the measure is unchanged. Its goal is to chase the money-changers from the temple of legislation.

But money has always been with us, more persistent, even, than the poor. Mark Hanna, for example, helped finance the 19th-century presidential campaigns of James A. Garfield and William McKinley and then, known to the public as "Dollar Mark," he entered the Senate himself, robbed of a presidential campaign of his own only by an early death. Since then, the financial trusts, organized labor, major manufacturers, high-technology interests and special-interest groups ranging from the National Rifle Assn. to the American Association of Retired Persons have won access and power through campaign contributions.

All of Washington the candidates and the contributors alike is weary of the relentless demands of raising money. But the appetite for special pleading, special deals and special access has not dissipated.

That is why careful analysts of the Washington scene seldom use the word "reform" to characterize measures to overhaul the campaign-finance system. Earlier "reforms" such as the legislation to regulate campaign fund-raising that emerged from the Watergate years have begat changes, but they have also begat reforms of their own. The measures passed in the wake of Watergate, for example, imposed contribution limits on individuals, but eventually the parties found ways around the limits, leading to the explosion of so-called "soft-money," a category of contributions and a phrase that were virtually unknown at the time.

That is only one of the reasons why this legislation nearly died several times in the last few weeks. And that is one of the principal reasons this legislation presents so many uncertainties for the political system.

Some of its critics believe the measure will only cause money to seep into politics through different crevices. Some of its critics believe the measure will sap the political parties of their importance. Some of its critics believe the measure will only launch a new flood of campaign-like advertisements.

And almost everyone believes that the legislation will prompt legal challenges from political interests and institutions that equate campaign spending with freedom of speech and from self-financed political contenders who can argue that provisions aimed at wealthy candidates violate the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

But no one believes that the political system that will emerge from the McCain-Feingold legislation will be the same as the one that exists today. American politics constantly reinvents itself. Monday was one of the moments when it began to do so again.

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