Capitol Hill capitalism

August 7, 1999

In Congress, campaign finance reform is highly partisan. Democrats overwhelmingly support a bill to eliminate soft money and tighten independent expenditures. Most Republicans are opposed, some arguing that public concern over money in politics may be genuine but is thin -- an issue not felt strongly enough to turn an election.

As frequently happens, the skeptical Washington perspective is increasingly at odds with the reality of the presidential campaign and in the states.

A month ago, Senator John McCain's was a lonely voice pushing the presidential contenders to address a bill he is cosponsoring with Senator Russell Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat. Since then, happily, he has been joined by others.

- Former governor Lamar Alexander of Tennessee has mounted an ad in Iowa decrying the dominance of big money in the campaign. While Governor George W. Bush of Texas is not named, the reference to the candidate who broke all fund-raising records -- and who announced that he will opt out of the voluntary spending limits that would allow him to receive federal campaign funds -- is clear.

- Publisher Steve Forbes was accused of trying the buy votes by paying attendees to the Iowa straw vote scheduled for Aug. 14, a charge Forbes vehemently denied.

- Former senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey put out a detailed list of proposals, including public financing of congressional as well as presidential elections, free broadcast time, and a ban on all soft money in all federal elections. Bradley has already generated a minidebate with Vice President Al Gore over Bradley's suggestion that all the current presidential candidates voluntarily eschew soft money, even in the absence of a change in the law.

The states, too, are at odds with Congress. Those with the strongest reforms are Massachusetts, Arizona, Wisconsin, Maine, and Vermont. The first three have Republican governors; Maine is led by an independent.

The lesson from outside the Washington Beltway is that more candidates are realizing that democratic reforms are powerful as well as right and that either party can claim the high ground.