The U.S. Senate will take up campaign finance reform within the next two weeks.
It will be interesting to see what compromises Democrats and Republicans strike and where Utah's two Republican senators stand.Sens. Jake Garn and Orrin Hatch were leaders of the 1988 GOP filibuster that sunk campaign reform then. Both objected to the "voluntary" public funding aspect of the reform, saying campaigns should be privately funded and contain no taxpayer dollars.
But there has arisen a great evil in congressional campaign financing - political action committees.
PACs arose out of Watergate, when investigations revealed how millions of dollars from private businesses and individuals was secretly funneled into presidential campaigns.
But what was originally believed to be a good solution to that problem - the PACs - has turned out to be equally as troublesome. Simply put, special interest PACs are buying Congress.
Of course, senators and representatives deny this. But the fact is PACs have made it all but impossible for challengers to unseat incumbents.
A recent study by the citizen lobbying group Common Cause - whose main goal is campaign reform - shows that in the 1988 elections PACs gave $82 million to House incumbents running for re-election and only $9 million to their challengers.
More than 95 percent of the incumbents were re-elected.
Ironically, Republicans at first were enthusiastic about PACs. They saw them as a means to get large business donations into their campaigns to offset the traditional big money given Democrats by labor unions.
But PACs haven't necessarily turned out to be partisan - although there are right-wing PACs. Rather, PACs have turned out to be incumbent fund-raising arms.
While the balance of power in the U.S. Senate tips from time to time - the Senate was controlled by Republicans from 1980-86 and is now controlled by Democrats - the House has been solidly Democratic since the mid-1950s.
So, the question for both incumbent Republicans and Democrats is what to do about election reform this election year, especially in light of the so-called "Keating Five" - the five senators who took large contributions from Charles Keating and in return intervened on his behalf before federal agencies who were trying to take over his failed savings and loan company.
But a proposed compromise on the campaign finance bill unfortunately does little to solve the PAC problem.
Instead of eliminating PAC contributions, or strictly limiting PAC money to a percent of total campaign funds raised, the compromise just makes it more difficult to stock one's campaign with the special interest cash.
In return for discount or free TV advertising time, low-cost mailings and other advantages, a candidate for federal office would agree to a spending limitation based on the population in his election area.
As part of that limitation, PAC money would make up 30 percent of that limit. However, once the candidate had received his allotment of PAC money, he could still accept more. PACs giving over that limit would be restricted to $2,500 donations each instead of the current $5,000 contributions.
Now, Garn and Hatch are honest men and I'm not suggesting they're on the take. But they play the PAC game as well as anyone.
For example, Garn is the ranking minority member on the Senate Banking Committee. From 1983 until 1988, Garn received $195,375 from financial institution PACs, Common Cause reports. That's more money than his 1986 Democratic candidate spent in his whole campaign.
Hatch is more efficient at fund raising. He is the ranking minority member on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee. From 1983 to 1988 he raised $131,304 from food and restaurant PACs and $109,550 from real estate and construction PACs, both groups seeking to influence legislation that comes before his committee. Hatch's 1988 Democratic opponent raised less than $100,000 in his whole campaign, while Hatch raised $3 million.
Over the next month, let's watch the votes on campaign reform and what is done with PAC contributions.