Election-reform loophole trips up Mondale campaign

Once again, a loophole in election law has brought a United States political campaign nothing but trouble. The candidate struck this time is Walter Mondale. The loophole is one that allows delegates pledged to Mr. Mondale to form their own committees and spend money independently on his behalf.

In recent days Mondale has been dogged by questions about possibly illegal coordination between his staff and the committees. Finally, on Wednesday, he publicly pleaded with the delegate committees to disband, saying, ''I just want to be rid of them.''

Since the Watergate years of the early 1970s, Congress has tried hard to make campaigns fairer and less susceptible to corruption. Amendments to campaign laws passed in the last decade, among other things, limit campaign contributions by individuals to $1,000 per candidate, and cap the total amount of money candidates can spend.

These reforms have also made campaign law incredibly complex and have brought many lawyers the joy of employment.

Much of this legal talent spends its time trying to make sure candidates conform with Federal Election Commission rules. But in just about every election cycle, says Michael Malbin, an American Enterprise Institute fellow, someone figures out a new way to, in effect, skirt campaign money limits.

''Lots of problems have grown out of the expenditure limits,'' says Mr. Malbin.

In 1980, for instance, much attention focused on ''independent expenditures.'' These are funds spent by PACs or individuals in support of a candidate, but without the candidates' knowledge.

Under current law, groups are supposed to limit their independent expenditures to $1,000 per candidate, per election. But the law has been widely ignored, since court rulings have long made it unenforceable. Sometime this fall , the US Supreme Court will decide whether the limit should be adhered to.

''Independent delegate committees'' are thus just the latest in a string of innovations.

Mondale denies that the 124 delegate-committees supporting him have done anything wrong. He says his own campaign hasn't given the panels illegal aid.

But Mondale has been, at the very least, embarrassed by circumstantial evidence concerning the committees. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, reports that some 30 Mondale aides have left the official campaign and are now paid by delegate panels.

And in any case some critics say they feel that delegate committees, even if they scrupulously conform to the law, undermine the public financing system for presidential campaigns.

''They damage the integrity of both expenditure limits and contribution limits,'' says Ann McBride, vice-president of Common Cause, a public-interest group that keeps watch over government affairs.

She says that it's not important whether the candidate controls the committee activities or not: ''Whether $1,000 is spent by the Mondale campaign or a delegate committee, it has the same goal: advanced Mondale.''

Delegate committees were authorized by a 1980 regulation of the Federal Election Commission. Its goal is to allow more freedom for political activity at the grass-roots level.

If they were restricted, then, would Congress be restricting the free speech of its citizens? That question is also at the heart of the debate over independent expenditures.

The committees now reside in a twilight zone of the law.

''You've never had the FEC interpret the rules authorizing them,'' points out Sharon Snyder, an FEC spokeswoman.

There is no doubt the panels are, at heart, legal, she says.

The problem comes in deciding how much they can do in concert with the national campaign.

They can't consult with the head office on buying media time advertising their candidate. That much, she says, is clear.

But there are no rules on consultation over such things as bumper stickers, leaflets, and door-knocking. ''There are a lot of unanswered questions,'' the spokeswoman says.

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