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Pledge to conquer campaign reform easily forgotten

The meeting occurred at the White House on Feb. 3, 1993, less than two weeks after President Clinton had taken office.

And it killed campaign finance reform in the 103rd Congress.

As Clinton sat with the House and Senate Democratic leadership on campaign finance reform, the powerful words of his inaugural address were still ringing.

"And so I say to all of you here, let us resolve to reform our politics so that power and privilege no longer shout down the voice of the people," the new president had said. "Let us give this capital back to the people to whom it belongs."

President Clinton had run on a mandate of change, and a central theme of his 1992 campaign was the need for reforming the way business is done in Washington. That theme had also been at the heart of the Ross Perot campaign. So while Clinton himself had received only a 43 percent mandate from the voters, the issue of cleaning up the system in Washington, of fundamental change, was endorsed by a landslide: 62 percent of the electorate.

But if "change" was the most frequently used word in the 1992 national elections, the favorite words in Washington have long been "status quo." The two forces were bound to clash in a powerful way following the election. And that's what happened.

When Clinton took office, the stage was set for enactment of the first serious campaign finance reform legislation in two decades. A number of factors had created this opportunity in addition to the powerful mandate from the 1992 elections.

Despite these hopeful developments, powerful opposition was certain to come from Washington's unholy trinity: special-interest political action committees (PACs), Washington lobbyists and entrenched incumbents in both parties who were the beneficiaries of PAC and lobbyist largesse. Their goal was simple: to maintain the status quo. Washington insiders also were telling the new president not to waste his political capital on campaign finance reform because it would antagonize members of Congress and interfere with Clinton's "real" agenda.

The president had appeared to recognize the fallacy of this argument when he told Newsweek in the first week of his administration, "It's going to be difficult for us to pass the kind of health care reforms we need, and the kinds of budgetary changes we need, unless we can pass campaign-finance and lobby reform." His words proved to be prophetic.

At the Feb. 3 White House meeting, Mitchell, joined by Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., a longtime leader on the issue, made an impassioned plea for moving quickly on campaign finance reform.

Foley and House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri had another plan. Despite the speaker's public promise of early action on campaign finance reform, the House leaders now argued for delay. They said other important issues should be dealt with first.

Now the president faced a moment of truth. Would he insist on early action on campaign finance reform?

Clinton chose to acquiesce to the demands of the House Democrats.

The delay was crucial. For 10 months House Democratic leaders rejected efforts to reach an agreement with the Senate on strong legislation. At last, a final bill emerged in the closing days of the 103rd Congress, but by then it was a sitting duck for the obstructionist tactics of Minority Leader Dole and his Republican colleagues.

As a result of the failure to enact campaign finance reform, business as usual will continue in Washington and in the new Congress that convenes next January:

Huge unlimited "soft-money" contributions of $100,000 and $200,000 and more.

Special-interest PACs, Washington lobbyists and wealthy individuals will continue to buy more access and more influence with members of Congress at the expense of the average taxpayer.

Congressional challengers will continue to be denied public campaign resources.

Congressional incumbents will continue to be denied public campaign resources needed to run for office without being dependent on special-interest political money.

Members of Congress will continue to convert their campaign money to personal use to buy cars, clothes and meals and to pay for vacation trips, country club dues and recreational activities.

Clinton walked away from the millions of Americans who had responded with hope to his promise to change the way Washington works. Candidate Clinton had promised to make campaign finance reform one of his top priorities; but President Clinton never did so and never conducted a public campaign for it.

Fred Wertheimer is stepping down after 14 years as president of Common Cause.