Campaign Finance: Lessons From Afar

The United States is not alone in its struggle to overcome the seeming unsolvable problem of how to regulate the mix of money and politics in national elections.

Democracies around the world are grappling with the same issues that have mired the 1996 US presidential campaign in a muck of suspicion about Democratic and Republican fund-raising tactics.

In recent years, campaign-finance scandals have toppled leaders in Japan and Italy. Other countries have managed to steer clear of scandal, in part by enacting campaign-finance laws that eliminate or significantly reduce the role of corporations, labor unions, and other powerful special interests in the funding of political campaigns.

Advocates of campaign-finance reform say America can learn some lessons from the world's other democracies that might help to improve its election process.

"The biggest lesson is the ability of other countries to strictly limit the [special-interest] money that goes into funding political campaigns," says Donna Edwards of the Center for a New Democracy in Washington.

Most of the world's other democracies have limited the role of special-interest money by providing government funding to support national campaigns, says Ms. Edwards. They have also undercut the need for candidates to turn to special interests for financial support by enacting laws that give candidates free television air time during elections.

In the US, political advertising on TV is the single largest campaign expense in hotly contested races.

These two measures - government funding and free television - mark a major difference between US election laws and those of most of America's democratic allies, studies show.

Among the world's industrialized democracies, the United States is the only country that does not provide its political candidates free television broadcasts. And the US is one of only three countries that provide no government funding for elections to the national legislature. The other two are Ireland and Switzerland.

To advocates of US campaign-finance reform, those two facts are evidence that the US is becoming a political dinosaur among democracies.

The idea of government-subsidized elections is not foreign to US officials. In the 1970s, Congress enacted a government funding program for presidential elections to address campaign-finance problems identified in the Watergate scandal. This year the government is providing a total of $74 million in matching funds to both President Clinton and Republican challenger Bob Dole under that program. But Congress has never been able to agree on a similar program for its own elections.

A core problem in all democracies is that politicians need money to run their campaigns. Businessmen, labor leaders, and other special interests are willing to give it to them. But that relationship creates the appearance of trading money for influence, a basic form of corruption that is anathema to democratic government.

"What is certain is that candidates spend what they feel they need," says Herbert Alexander, a political scientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The issue isn't so much the amount of money being spent on campaigns, he says, as the government's ability to ensure that no strings are attached to campaign contributions.

"We elect in this country over 500,000 public officials over a four-year campaign cycle," Mr. Alexander says. "To say too much money is spent is to say we shouldn't have vigorous campaigning and tough competition."

Campaign-finance reform has been an off-again, on-again issue in Washington. It was revived recently by Mr. Dole in response to press reports questioning contributions to the Democratic Party from a foreign corporation and from foreign citizens living in the US. Questions have also been raised about extensive use by both major political parties of election-law loopholes to supplement campaign spending with unregulated contributions from corporations, labor unions, and other special interests.

How do other countries keep special-interest contributions down?

In Britain, elections are conducted during a 21-day period, candidate campaign spending is limited (although party spending is not), and candidates are allowed free TV air time and free mailing privileges.

In Japan, candidates receive a campaign subsidy from the government of roughly $2.50 per voter. Private contributions are still accepted, but candidates are eligible for free transportation, sound trucks, mailings, and broadcast air time.

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