Dave Boren, the soft-spoken senior senator from Oklahoma, is not often acclaimed for impassioned oratory. He is acclaimed for other things. But in opening debate last week on this year's bill for election reform, he surprised everybody. He produced a jewel of a stem-winder.
Boren dwelled repeatedly on the theme that "something is wrong." When we look at the amount of money needed to run a winning campaign, "we know that something is wrong." When we see that the success of challengers is at an all-time low, we understand that the system is not working as it should."When we see that there is not an equal opportunity for new people to break into the system, that the current campaign system is working as an incumbent's protection plan, that there is not a level playing field, we understand that there is something wrong."
In the senatorial elections of last year, winning Senate incumbents spent an average of almost $4 million for their re-election campaigns. A war chest of that magnitude means that a senator must raise an average of $13,000 a week, 52 weeks a year, for six years.
Boren said, "When we think about the time and the attention that it takes to raise that amount of money to successfully run for re-election, and the trips that it takes across the country, and the fund-raisers that are held, and the amount of money that has to be collected from people we do not even know, whose reputations we are not even sure about, we know that something is wrong."
It was a superlative speech, the end product of more than 10 years of frustrating labor on Boren's part.
The probabilities are that Boren's bill, with minor amendments, will pass the Senate before the Memorial Day recess begins Monday. It is equally probable that when the legislative process finally runs its course, Boren will come up empty. The gulf between his Democratic proposal and Sen. Bob Dole's Republican proposal is a gulf to be measured in nautical miles.
Boren's principal concern, to oversimplify the issue, is with the amount of money that is spent. Dole's principal concern is with where the money comes from. Boren thinks in terms of individual candidates. Dole thinks in terms of political parties. Boren wants some form of public financing of elections. Dole opposes public financing absolutely.
The two senators have some things in common. Both of them want to curb the money chase. Both would forbid contributions from political action committees. Both would lower the contribution limit on out-of-state givers. Both would require television stations to make time available to candidates at reduced rates.
The goal of an effective reform bill, as Dole sees it, is to encourage "good money" and to ban "bad money." Under the heading of good money, he includes contributions from individual supporters in the candidate's home state, contributions of $250 or less from out of state and contributions from the candidate's political party.
Says Boren, "There cannot be real reform until we put some kind of limit on overall spending." This is the only way to give challengers a chance. Without effective limits, incumbents always will be able to overwhelm an opponent by the sheer weight of money.
The trouble is that such limits have to be voluntarily accepted. The citizen who contributes, and the candidate who spends, are both exercising a constitutional right of free speech - and that right cannot be abridged.
I have been covering politics all my adult life, and I confess my own inability to propose reforms that would have a realistic chance of becoming law. Yes, something is wrong with the current process. A vast deal is wrong with it. The idea of term limitation strikes me as a bad idea - there is far more turnover in Congress than most critics realize - but there ought not be life members either.
With bipartisan good will, maybe a compromise can be reached between Boren and Dole, but don't bet on it. Members ultimately will be voting not for ideas, but for self-preservation. This is hardball politics, with about as much bipartisan good will as one finds in a game between the Yankees and the Red Sox.