The Washington Times

Campaign-finance reform died as expected in the Senate, but the issue will soon be back, propelled by two things: the progress proponents made on the issue this year and some very interesting figures on fund-raising that point to the missing link in the debate so far.

Reform’s leading proponents in the Senate, Republican John McCain and Democrat Russ Feingold, seek a ban on soft money contributions, big-dollar donations to party committees from corporations, unions and well-heeled individuals. This money’s use is supposed to be restricted to so-called party-building activities, but in practice soft money can be used in huge amounts to pay for television advertising clearly intended to benefit the party’s candidate, so long as the ads do not expressly say, “Vote for Mr. X.”

It is an article of faith, or at least a staple of the rhetoric of reform proponents, that our political system has been corrupted by soft money. Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, the leading opponent of the McCain-Feingold legislation, did score a point this time around with his insistence that those who say the system is corrupt should also say who in particular is corrupt – which senator has been bought off by which moneyed interest. Proponents are unable to do that, because, as those on both sides of this argument well know, the relation between money and politics is more subtle than the rhetoric of corruption acknowledges.

At the same time, there is no denying that big dollars are indeed involved in politics; that this is unseemly, at best; and that the public has long since cynically concluded that moneyed special interests have the parties in their pockets. Hence, the appeal of reform.

But let us not forget the raw partisan interests in the debate over reform. The fact is that both sides, Democrats and Republicans, are playing by the same rules – or, if you prefer, bending the same rules to the breaking point. And the fact is that Republicans have routinely raised far more in soft-money contributions than Democrats.

It is, of course, possible that if you are a Democrat who supports a soft-money ban – all Senate Democrats do, bar none – you are acting only out of high-minded principle. But it is also true that a ban on soft money will eliminate a GOP fund-raising edge, which is to your partisan advantage. Likewise, if you are a Republican opposed to changing the system, you will probably couch your support in terms of the First Amendment, but you are also fighting to preserve the rules under which you are winning.

Well, why should Republicans give up their edge? Some of them, including Sen. McCain, evidently believe the principle is worth the partisan sacrifice. To persuade others, Democrats seek to exploit public displeasure with the current rules – which is to say, to try to offset the advantage Republicans gain from current fund-raising practice with a price, namely, electoral wrath at the defenders of a corrupt system. It is a contest between avarice and fear.

Avarice has been winning. For Republicans, the money is concrete, the wrath of the electorate rather notional. There are lots of things voters don’t like, and this is only one of them. Republicans will never frame a national election around their support for current campaign-finance laws, nor allow Democrats to do so without a GOP effort to change the subject. Perhaps fear will eventually win out. But before it does or as it does, something else may come into play. It is this: Is the GOP edge in soft money a permanent advantage, or can Democrats become competitive?

They are certainly trying. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is in charge of the effort to win back control of the House, is making a huge push to extract soft money from contributors. And although the Republicans still raise more, the Democratic effort is yielding some returns. In the first six months of 1999, according to filings with the FEC, the DCCC raised $9 million; its GOP counterpart raised $9.4 million.

Overall, the three GOP party committees (the Republican National Committee and the House and Senate committees) raised $30.9 million in soft money in the first six months of the 1999-2000 cycle, up 42 percent over the 1997-98 cycle. The three Democratic committees raised $26.4 million in soft money in the same period, up an impressive 92 percent over 1997-98. In other words, two years ago, Democrats took in only 63 cents for every dollar Republicans raised. This year, they are taking in 85 cents on the GOP dollar.

The apparent paradox is that if Democrats really want a ban on soft money on principle, and not just to neutralize a GOP advantage, the surest way to advance their cause is to raise enough soft money to neutralize the GOP advantage. Democrats having demonstrated that they are not just seeking a politically imposed parity they are unable to achieve at the counting house, Republicans will have no vested interest in opposing a soft-money ban.