In the end, nothing seemed to matter in the losing battle to change the nation's corrupting system of election campaign finance. Not all the scandalous disclosures of abuse from the 1996 elections, not all the congressional testimony about overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom, not the laundering of foreign money to seek influence in the halls of power, not the outrage of decent, honorable leaders such as Walter Mondale and Howard Baker and not even the flood of reports that demonstrated the perverse power of big money in the American political system.
In the end, Republican opponents in the Senate refused to consider even a modicum of change in the campaign finance laws, except for a "poison pill" proposal to restrict fund-raising by their labor union foes. Cloaking their cause in the banner of free speech, the GOP leadership declared that unlimited spending on elections is the American Way.
The final votes last week involving the reform bill, sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), were virtually identical to the tallies when similar legislation died last October. The irony is that the majority of the 100 senators voted for reform. But proponents did not have the 60 votes needed to overcome a GOP filibuster against the bill.
Images on the Senate floor told the story as the debate sputtered to an end. There was McCain, the Vietnam War hero and leader of the reform movement, looking weary, rumpled and exasperated at his inability to stop the juggernaut. On the other side was Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), looking cool, crisp and triumphant. Lott was the patient master surgeon who undercut every effort to better the American electoral system.
There is another irony to this story. All the Democrats in the Senate favored McCain-Feingold even though the bulk of 1996 campaign fund-raising abuses stemmed from their own party and its presidential campaign. Many conceded that the system was broken or that it was their own party that had engaged in most of the abuse. It was the Republicans who steadfastly opposed change, most of them the same lawmakers who were so outraged during Senate hearings over the Clinton-Gore fund-raising tactics in 1996.
One notable exception was Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who chaired those hearings. Thompson, who joined the reformers, concluded: "We don't have a campaign finance system anymore. The loopholes are bigger than the laws." He predicted the abuse will be even worse in the 1998 campaign.
The House is scheduled to conduct its own reform debate in late March although no specific legislation has been drafted yet. Prospects for passage may be better there since rules do not permit an unlimited filibuster to kill legislation. House passage could put some pressure on the Senate to act, but final approval of any plan is not likely unless Congress feels far more heat from an outraged voting public than it has so far.
If all else fails, Congress should require that candidates report their fund-raising activities to the Federal Election Commission electronically and that this information be posted promptly on the Internet. At least the public deserves to know, before it votes, where the money comes from.