Money-run politics

THE House and Senate members who headed home this week for the Thanksgiving recess should think about an image problem they left behind in Washington. From the home districts, it gets harder and harder to tell the politicians from the agents of the special interests whom the legislators are supposed to keep in line. A kind of corporatizing of the Washington community is occurring, a blurring of roles, a stepping across of lines between campaign work for candidates and other roles including legislative, lobbying, law, public relations, political think tank, and even journalistic.

The savaging of tax reform legislation in recent weeks, a feeding frenzy for special interests, really exposed Washington's evolving political culture. It actually brought together the top campaign aides from the 1984 Reagan and Mondale campaigns to form bipartisan lobbying teams to defeat parts of the legislation. The ethic seems to be that you pick a candidate or a party for the campaign, and when it's over you make money.

Part of the problem -- and only part -- is the role of political-action committees. PACs funnel money into campaigns. They are vehicles for influence -- for example, for individuals who may later want to affect wine-industry estate tax laws, or public-interest groups that want to alter the course of environmental legislation.

PACs are neither good nor bad per se. The Supreme Court has protected them. But they're having an impact on the financial structure of politics, on the way politics is conducted, and on who participates. PACs are putting a financial floor under political operatives which distances Washington from the small individual contributor and voter -- from regular folks.

In the last three elections, 1980 to 1984, small contributions declined by 17 percent, the House Democratic Study Group (DSG) reports. The greater proportion of PAC funds goes to Democrats, largely because PACs tend to support likely incumbent winners. PAC funds averaged $151,000 for House Democratic incumbents in 1984, compared with $145,000 from individual contributors. The proportion was reversed for non-incumbents. The trend is toward more PAC support and less individual financial support for House and Senate elections.

Some $100 million a year is now flowing into campaign coffers through PACs.

To get a lid on things, the DSG suggests granting a 100 percent tax credit for individual political contributions, up to a total of $100 a year. The House Ways and Means Committee, in its new tax reform bill, just wiped out the current 50 percent tax credit on annual giving up to $50. This might suggest that the tax credit incentive has dim prospects. But advocates like Michael Malbin, campaign finance expert at the American Enterprise Institute and an originator of the concept, contend that a 100 perce nt credit is more defensible than the 50 percent credit. As written, the DSG proposal would be revenue neutral; that is, would not cost the Treasury anything, compared with present law. If linked to a PAC contributions limit, such as proposed by Sen. David Boren of Oklahoma, it could prove far more attractive to the politicians who must pass it.

Senator Boren has proposed a limit of $100,000 on contributions House candidates can accept from PACs, and a limited range of $175,000 to $750,000 for Senate candidates, depending on state size. It is important to note that the PAC limit is not an overall limit on campaign spending. Limits on total spending would work to the advantage of the large groups spread across the United States which have other ways to seek influence than money. ``Limits end up pushing out mid-size groups, but still leave the bi ggest ones to pursue their interests in forms other than contributions,'' Mr. Malbin says. ``You have to be large and well organized to give in-kind help -- providing campaign consultants, for instance.''

In combination, a 100 percent tax credit for individual giving and limits on the PAC share would give an incentive for politicians to go after individual contributions in a way they now do not have to.

Sen. Robert Dole has said there's no such thing as a ``poor PAC.'' He's right. Legislation linking tax credit incentives and PAC limits (although a cost-of-living escalator clause should be added to the Boren proposal) should help adjust the balance of political forces to help little people.

It will be the Senate's turn to take up tax legislation next. Senate Finance Committee chairman Bob Packwood, long a supporter of the full campaign contribution tax credit, has an opportunity to lead this fight to help realign elected politicians with the people they represent.

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