Campaign financing reform is about to go the way of term limits -- to the political graveyard. And it isn't just because only 3 percent of Americans seem to really care about legislation to guarantee that sleazy fund-raisers do not control our elections.
Campaign financing reform seems doomed because of the oldest rule of American politics: Never vote for anything that takes away your advantage.
Republicans have always had an advantage in raising money. So while they have had a good time lately ridiculing the Clinton administration for money-grubbing stupidities, they don't really want to close off their sources of "soft money" or any other funds.
Well, why, then, are you and I supposed to cough up $6.5 million of our hard-earned money to pay for Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) and a staff of 80 to conduct a long probe of misconduct and abuses in financing the presidential and congressional campaigns of 1996? Thompson might come out of this probe looking more like a presidential candidate, and we may be titillated to learn that "coffee, tea or me" was the White House song to big donors, but a lot of Republicans will get some unwanted exposure in the process.
It is more than a coincidence that Thompson is the only Senate Republican to leap forth in support of a finance reform bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.). Most of our lawmakers are content to have the media go nuts over fund-raisers like John Huang, and which Clinton official met which fat cat at which White House coffee klatch. But when you propose new laws with real teeth they say you've stopped preaching and gone to meddling.
I find here, and in my travels around the country, that people may curse or laugh at the most egregious fund-raising excesses, but they believe that politicians of all parties and ideological leanings cheat, and that there is no way to stop it. That's why the public wants priority given to balancing the budget, providing children with better educations, guaranteeing better health care now and some security in old age.
People don't want the diversion and the divisiveness of a sideshow congressional hearing into who was more crooked than whom in scrounging political donations last year.
But we'll probably get the hearings because Thompson knows how highly publicized public hearings can catapult skilled inquisitors into positions of greater power and glory. And because some of the mistakes made by the Democratic National Committee are too ludicrous and laughable for the Republicans to resist a chance to exploit them.
But the Republicans may have to do this probe on the cheap. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle says the amount of money Thompson is asking for is "outrageous."
Even Republicans don't want him to have so much money that his sleuths can fish every pond and put the microscope to Republican lawmakers who ran big-money campaigns.
If members of the Senate won't embrace the McCain bill, who can believe that the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee is the vehicle through which we can clean up American politics?
I'd like to see laws passed that spell out clearly who can give what, or do what, in raising the money to finance political campaigns. I'd like to see agreements that candidates will not again spend the obscene amounts of money that have become commonplace and made a congressman's two-year term a two-year money-begging exercise. But constitutional freedoms and power yearnings may make it impossible for us to get what we wish.
Given that reality, it is common sense, not defeatism, to say, "Don't spend my tax dollars on the Thompson probe."