WHEN it comes down to doing something to overhaul the United States' dollar-hungry system of election campaigning, even a gentlemen's handshake no longer counts for anything. The two most powerful politicians, President Bill Clinton and House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, shook hands before a national television audience a year ago this week, pledging to break the deadlock on this issue. The agreement came after a man in the audience at a New Hampshire public meeting asked them to consider setting up a commission to examine campaign finance reform. But 12 months on, even the politically cynical American public is finding it hard to stomach that 'The Handshake' has yielded no action from either the Clinton or Gingrich camps. 'Their meaningless handshake is a poignant metaphor for the low credibility of our political leaders on the role of money in politics,' wrote the Washington Post last week. And the citizen who suggested the commission, 61-year-old Frank MacConnell, is equally disillusioned, saying 'it's a dead issue now'. Campaign finance reform is massively popular among voters, who are sick of seeing members of Congress bought by special interest groups. While every Washington politician agrees in public with the need to change the system, whenever the issue comes to vote, bipartisan ways are found to derail it. Republicans in Congress filibustered reform bills in 1987 and 1989, and the then president, George Bush, in 1992 vetoed a measure which actually got passed. Members of both parties conspired to hold a marathon filibuster of another attempted reform bill in 1994, leading then speaker Thomas Foley to call it the worst piece of obstruction he had seen in his 30 years on Capitol Hill. The figures are huge: in 1994, it cost an average of US$4 million (HK$31 million) to win a Senate seat, and US$500,000 for a victory in the House. In a presidential race, it costs at least US$20 million just to get through the party primaries. Rather than adopt measures to cut back on their own spending - such as financing elections with public money or forcing TV companies to offer cheap advertising - politicians have preferred to devote more time to fund-raising. While politicians stall, Fox TV boss Rupert Murdoch acted unilaterally to offer free airtime for this year's presidential candidates. The other networks have followed suit.