While Washington Dithers, States Cap Campaign Funds

After waiting for years for politicians to control campaign spending, many voters are taking matters - and the law - into their own hands.

Ballot initiatives that limit campaign spending have passed in 22 states, and voters in three more states - California, Colorado, and Maine - will have the chance to vote for similar laws this November. The candidates in two high-profile senatorial races - in South Carolina and in Massachusetts - have responded to the public mood by voluntarily capping their campaign coffers. One senate hopeful in New Hampshire has decided to reject contributions larger than $100.

Reformists say public anger over money in politics has reached a critical mass. "Politicians are responding to public demand for a reform of the electoral process," says Donald Simon, a spokesman for Common Cause in Washington. "People really want something to be done about this out-of-control spending."

The cost of campaigning has risen as polls, focus groups, and television ads have become more sophisticated. In 1976, the average successful Senate candidate spent $610,000. Six years later, the figure had jumped to $2 million. By 1994, it had reached $4.5 million. The trouble with all this money is that it comes with strings attached, says Ellen Miller of the Center for Responsive Politics, an independent research group in Washington. "More money is being spent in campaigns, it's coming from fewer people, and contributors regularly cash in on the contributions they've made," she says.

The sugar industry, she notes, contributed $1.4 million to campaigns from 1989 to 1995. The industry won backing to keep loan supports for farmers earlier this year. Among the 61 senators who voted against cutting the sugar program, 10 were top recipients of sugar campaign contributions.

Some politicians argue that giving $1,000 to a candidate or $5,000 to a special interest group is a constitutionally protected form of free speech. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, who led an effort to stall a popular bill to overhaul campaign spending laws this spring, says current law makes it impossible to buy a candidate with a single check. He dismisses public funding of campaigns, a main goal of reformers, as "an entitlement program for politicians."

While campaign reform has stalled in Washington, it has picked up speed at the state level. As a result of ballot initiatives, Michigan, New Jersey, and Wisconsin provide candidates with matching public funds in return for pledges to limit spending. Other states with voluntary spending caps give money to state parties to distribute, and New Hampshire provides no public funding, but tells the public which candidates have agreed to spending limits.

Perhaps the most sweeping campaign spending cap in the nation is on the ballot in Maine. The proposal, which opinion polls show is likely to pass, would provide almost total public financing in return for an agreement to limit campaign spending. But in terms of media attention, campaign restraint has its most visible test in Massachusetts, where incumbent Sen. John Kerry (D) and popular Gov. William Weld (R) agreed last month to hold campaign spending to $6.9 million each until election day. The candidates, both multimillionaires, would restrict their personal campaign contributions to $500,000. "I've never seen candidates agree to voluntary spending caps," says Ms. Miller. "It shows they recognize the public is disgusted with the amount of money" involved in campaigns.

Some observers note that the Kerry-Weld race is far from typical. "In effect, you have two incumbents running who have free media coverage," says Paul Watanabe, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "They are not seen by the public as making a huge sacrifice, but this has garnered them some good will." Campaign workers admit the pact allows plenty of money for massive advertising, particularly in the final crucial months. As Jennifer Watson, Senator Kerry's spokeswoman, says, "$6.9 million is not peanuts."

An agreement similar to the Kerry-Weld pact was reached this spring in South Carolina, when Democratic challenger Elliot Close urged incumbent Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) to hold spending to $3 million, roughly $1 per citizen. Thus far, neither Mr. Close, an heir to a textile fortune, nor Senator Thurmond are close to raising that amount for their campaign coffers.

But analysts say informal agreements are no way to combat the perception of candidate corruption. "It would have been interesting if the candidates had agreed to have an independent entity to monitor spending," says Mr. Watanabe. Since campaign spending rises dramatically as the race draws to a close, a candidate can break an agreement and not be caught until the election is over. "This is an agreement written in sand, and the contours can shift as the election proceeds."

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