Clinton in a corner as America seeks a fair way to pay for politics

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It likes to refer to itself, with not a blush of embarrassment, as the "greatest legislative body on Earth". Less charitable souls look upon it as a club of self-important bores, whose members peer in the mirror each morning and see a future president. The body in question is the United States Senate. After its latest antics over campaign finance reform, it perhaps best resembles a ship of fools.

Once again - utterly predictably - a serious attempt at changing the way America pays for its politics has failed. Last Tuesday, a bipartisan bill sponsored by the Wisconsin Democrat, Russell Feingold, and the Arizona Republican, John McCain, could not garner enough support to be put to a vote, thus ensuring the continuation of a system that is hugely wasteful, intermittently corrupt and grossly unfair.

This time, however, there was a difference. Disappointment went hand in hand with black farce. At the very moment that the Republican majority leader, Trent Lott, succeeded in blocking reform, one of his Republican colleagues, Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee, was leading a committee investigating possible criminal breaches of the system Lott was defending, in hot pursuit of videotapes from the White House that might land President Bill Clinton himself in the soup for abuses of the law during last year's campaign.

In a sense, Clinton is victim of his own success. Infinitely persuasive, allying huge personal charm to the mystique of the presidency, he was in 1996 a fundraiser without equal. Behind him was a team led by the vice- president, Al Gore, determined to ensure Democrats would no longer be "out-raised" by Republicans. Hence the celebrated overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom for particularly generous party donors, the pathetic tale of the Indian tribe from Oklahoma relieved of $100,000 on the understanding legislation was on the way to help them (it wasn't). "We did what the law permitted," Clinton's campaign organiser told the Thompson committee last week. But what of the dubious donations from Chinese-American and Indonesian sources, and Mr Gore's attendance of an even more dubious fundraiser at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles in April 1996?

Then there are the White House coffee sessions, where Clinton may have broken the law by directly soliciting funds on Government premises. To the allegations themselves, the public is mostly indifferent, assuming correctly that everyone, Republicans and Democrats alike, does the same thing. But not for the first time, the president has courted danger by apparently trying to conceal evidence. Only belatedly did he produce videotapes of the sessions, having previously maintained they did not exist.

Such is the unceasing, unedifying, pursuit of money by American politicians. The presidential and Congressional campaigns of 1996 consumed the record sum of $1.6bn (pounds 1bn). Presidential candidates, in fact, get off relatively easily, once they are eligible for federal "matching funds" that can double their resources. But in a big state, where a campaign costs $10m or more, a sitting senator must raise up to $50,000 a week from the moment he is elected, simply to fight the next campaign. The prospect has driven from the Senate some of its best men such as Bill Cohen (now Clinton's Defence Secretary), Bill Bradley and Sam Nunn, no longer prepared to devote half their waking hours to grubbing for campaign money.

To the outsider, the answer is obvious: public financing for political campaigns, as in Britain and other Western countries - most logically in the form of free and equal time for candidates on TV, by far the greatest consumer of campaign dollars. Valid obstacles do exist, not least a Supreme Court ruling suggesting that curbs on spending would infringe the free- speech protection accorded by the US constitution, as well as the gut American belief that nothing should interfere with the economics of the free market, in this case the market for votes.

In the meantime, however, hypocrisy reigns. Hours after the Senate scuppered the bill, President Clinton vowed "to fight for this measure, as hard as necessary, as long as neccessary". But until that glorious day dawns, he will exploit the existing system to the limit. On the Senate floor, meanwhile, Trent Lott declared good riddance to "phoney reform", naturally forgetting that he had done as much as anyone to thwart the genuine reform offered by Messrs McCain and Feingold.

James Angleton, the legendary CIA mole-hunter, once described the espionage business as "a wilderness of mirrors". The term applies equally to campaign finance reform. But the smokescreen of dissimulation and doubletalk obscures a simple truth. The present system, giving free rein to donations from corporations, lobbyists and special interest groups, is tilted towards the incumbents who are already in position to deliver the required legislative favours. And among the incumbents are the 100 men and women who make up the greatest deliberate body on Earth.

Enough said. Why should turkeys vote for Christmas?