Prospects Mixed for Bush Reform
Congress seems unlikely to cut power of political-action committees as the President proposes. POLITICAL CONTRIBUTIONS
THERE'S good news and bad news for President Bush on campaign reform. The good news: Congress will probably approve several reforms recently proposed by the President to improve American elections.Skip to next paragraph
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The bad news: The biggest reforms, including the President's plan to abolish most political-action committees (PACs), will likely be defeated.
Campaign reform is ``hot'' this year on Capitol Hill because of the uproar over congressional ethics. Members feel impugned by charges that they are in the grip of special interests, such as corporations and labor unions, who give millions in campaign contributions.
But Republicans and Democrats sharply disagree over several key reforms - and that will make it difficult to do away with several of the most controversial campaign practices.
Prospects for reform could also be harmed by partisan maneuvering. The ink was barely dry on Mr. Bush's proposals when Ron Brown, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, blasted them as ``the Fat Cat Protection Act of 1989.''
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill were quietly debating reform measures before the President's proposal was released last week. But Bush elevated the stakes when he demanded a raft of changes.
The President wants to cut the power of PACs, eliminate free postage for political purposes by members of Congress, and get full disclosure of ``soft money'' now going through back channels from wealthy contributors. He would strengthen the hand of political parties, bring greater controls to independent expenditures in campaigns, and stop the practice of building up huge campaign treasuries over a period of years.
The President contends that special-interest money is undercutting the two major political parties and the congressional process.
``Today, special-interest political-action committees and their $160 million war chest overshadow the great parties of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln,'' Bush told one audience. ``As the strength of our parties erodes, so does the strength of our political system.''
It's an axiom in Washington: Dollars buy elections. Congressmen who want to stay in office spend prodigious amounts of energy just raising money for the next campaign.
Bush calls this constant hunt for campaign money ``degrading.''
Data from the Federal Election Commission show that in 1988, the winning House candidates spent an average of $388,000 apiece. That means that over the two-year period before the campaign, a typical candidate had to raise more than $3,700 a week to pay for the race.
In the Senate, the numbers are even higher. The average winning candidate spent $3.75 million in 1988. Over a six-year period (the length of a Senate term), a typical senator needed to raise $12,000 a week just to pay for his reelection campaign.
This voracious appetite for campaign cash leads congressmen into the open arms of political-action committees, which have tens of millions of dollars available. Ninety percent of these committees are supported by labor unions, corporations, and trade groups with direct financial interests in legislation. They give the money in hopes of gaining influence with key lawmakers.
Ironically, the current criticism of PACs results from increased public disclosure, which itself was the result of earlier reforms.
Before the Watergate scandal, much political spending was hidden from public view. Reformers won changes that forced the spending out into the open.