WASHINGTON - To hold a membership in the world's most exclusive club, U.S. senators had to raise an average of $4.1-million in campaign contributions for the 1988 elections. Spread over a six-year term, that comes to $$13,141 a week. Now, with those high costs blamed for a savings and loan scandal involving five senators, Congress is considering new limits on the money that lawmakers and political parties can collect. If limits are enacted, it would be the most far-reaching change in campaign financing since the Watergate era.
On Wednesday, a coalition of reformers pressed Congress to take steps to eliminate what they called a "corrupt" system that favors monied interests over ordinary citizens. Among their proposals are public financing of campaigns and limits on campaign spending, political action committees and gifts to political parties.
"The moment of truth on the campaign finance issue has arrived for members of Congress. And the central question - the key test - members now face is whether they will support real, not cosmetic, campaign reforms," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the public-interest group Common Cause.
The Senate is preparing to take up campaign financing legislation in early March, but members of both parties have objections to parts of the reforms. Not surprisingly, they say they do not want to lose fund-raising advantages they have come to enjoy.
Some Republicans fear that a proposed ceiling on the overall amount they can spend on each race cuts into their traditional fund-raising superiority. Some Democrats fear that a limit on the six-figure contributions individuals make to state parties will hinder their efforts.
And, for his part, President Bush opposes the Common Cause-backed idea of spending public tax dollars to finance campaigns. Public financing is seen as a key ingredient in overall spending limits.
"I think people should be able to attract private support, and I think participation by individuals in the political process through financial support is very, very important," Bush said last summer.
But Wertheimer argues that campaign financing reforms are necessary if Congress wants to accomplish a major image overhaul. He noted that a recent New York Times poll found that 40 percent of Americans believe at least half of Congress is corrupt. In 1988, voters ousted five lawmakers tainted by scandal.
The most publicized example, though, is the case of the Keating Five. In that saga, five senators accepted a total of $1.2-million from savings and loan executive Charles Keating. The senators intervened on Keating's behalf with federal regulators who wanted to shut down his S&L. Keating freely acknowledges he sought to influence the lawmakers. "I want to say in the most forceful way I can: I certainly hope so," he said.
His California-based S&L has since folded, and taxpayers may have to pay $2-billion to cover the losses. The five senators are facing ethics investigations, and their case is the catalyst for reforms the Senate is expected to consider.
Common Cause and 55 other organizations, including retirees' organizations, church groups and educators, called on Congress on Wednesday to press for "real reform."
The proposals fall into these general categories: Curbing so-called "soft money" contributions to state political parties. With help from both the George Bush and Michael Dukakis campaigns, contributors pumped more than $45-million into the two parties through this channel.
Reformers argue that "soft money" is really "sewer money" that is funneled through state parties to circumvent federal contribution limits. Federal law says individuals can give $1,000 to a candidate for each election, but many states allow contributors to give unlimited amounts to state political parties.
The money to state parties is supposed to be spent on generic political efforts, such as voter registration or get-out-the-vote drives that help the party's entire slate of candidates. In fact, critics say, the money comes from those seeking favors from federal candidates and it ends up helping federal candidates.
For example, St. Petersburg developers Mel Sembler and Joseph Zappala gave $100,000 each to a 1988 state Republican effort. Bush later rewarded the two GOP loyalists with ambassadorships to Australia and Spain.
A bill sponsored by Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, would limit a state party's "soft money" spending for presidential candidates to 4 cents for each voting-aged resident of the state. The bill also requires improved disclosure of where the money comes from and where it is spent.
Mitchell faces opposition from his own party on this front.
Paul Tully, who leads the political department for the Democratic National Committee, argues that state parties spend most of their time and money on state elections, not federal contests. To shut off the party's big contributions, Tully argues, would restrict the party's mission to promote its candidates.
"What does Common Cause think a political party should be?" Tully asked in an interview.
Reformers note that Democrats rely more on so-called soft money - as a percentage of their total contributions - than Republicans do.
Overall limits on spending, to curb the influence of big givers and cut the time lawmakers spend raising campaign money instead of helping constituents.
The average Senate election cost $4.1-million in 1988; the average House election about $380,000.
Boren's reform bill would limit Senate campaign spending to between $1.6-million and $8.2-million, depending on the size of the state. In Florida, candidates would have been limited to $4.68-million in 1988 had the Boren plan been in effect. The spending limits would be voluntary.
In the case of this reform, Republicans are the ones who are squawking. The GOP usually holds an upper hand in gathering money, and some Republicans do not want to see that advantage washed away at a time when they are trying to gain seats in Congress.
However, House Republican Leader Robert Michel of Illinois has indicated a willingness to consider a spending limit. The House traditionally has been less willing to take up campaign financing reform, but Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., says it will be considered this year.
Reductions in contributions from political action committees (PACs).
These contributions, from business, labor and ideological groups, usually flow to incumbents - making it easier for them to win re-election and harder for challengers to gain office.
In 1988, PACs gave $115-million to incumbents but only $17-million to challengers. Wertheimer says this helps create a "challenger-proof" Congress in which 98 percent of incumbents are re-elected.
Again, Democrats who control Congress hold the key. Since PACs customarily favor incumbents - and there are more Democrats than Republicans in Congress - the Democrats may oppose significant PAC limits.
Public financing of House and Senate elections, which supporters say is needed to replace the "dirty" private dollars with "clean" public dollars. Public money would be made available to candidates who agree to spending limits and other reforms.
Common Cause estimates it would cost $600-million to finance House and Senate races every two years. That amounts to $3 for each taxpayer - or about the cost of one Stealth bomber.
"If we can contemplate an expense like that to defend democracy abroad, how much are we willing to spend to defend our democracy at home?" asked Joan Claybrook, president of the Public Citizen advocacy group.