Politics: Business Expense

WHEN the price of a product keeps skyrocketing, even at a time of low inflation, it's clearly benefiting from a lack of competition. Such a ``product'' is elective office in the United States. The consumers are, of course, candidates for offices, but they also are the people and groups who want ``access'' to the officeholders.

The Bush and Dukakis campaigns each spent more than $100 million in 1988 - a record. Presidential elections are, ostensibly, publicly financed; yet in each case more than half the money spent came from private donors, in amounts up to $100,000, through gaping holes in federal campaign laws.

Similarly, each succeeding congressional cycle sets new records in total election expenditures. An ever larger portion of the funds, especially for House races, comes from political action committees. PACs are even pouring money into state races.

Why has political office come to carry such a hefty price tag? To be sure, it gets more expensive to run campaigns. The cost of everything from stamps to ``media buys'' has gone up, and most candidates now surround themselves with pollsters, strategists, and spin artists who draw fat fees.

But looking at campaign expenses only begs the question, for if candidates didn't have the money, they would simply buy fewer stamps and less air time.

Candidates today can afford to run big-ticket campaigns in part because, especially if they are incumbents or contestants for an open seat, they have a source of almost inexhaustible funds - special interests.

Of course, many individuals donate modest sums to political campaigns out of party loyalty or belief in a candidate. But the biggest jump in recent years has come in the amounts anted up by organized commercial interests. The reason is plain: Political office today is a monopolistic dispenser of valuable goodies.

Builders, bankers, unions, farmers don't make large campaign gifts (and pay lawmakers big honoria for speeches) out of sheer public mindedness. They do so to curry favor with officials who can grant them licenses, regulatory relief, tax breaks, and other economic advantages available from no other source.

Having so much money sloshing around in the political system can't be altogether healthy for democracy. Proposed solutions include contribution caps, spending lids, abolition of PACs, regulation of ``soft money,'' and public financing of campaigns.

But so long as government is - sometimes for good reasons - a principal bestower of economic advantage, special interests will find inventive ways to ``buy'' political access just as they would any other necessary business asset. For this reason, as well as for constitutional ones, it will be difficult to seal up all the loopholes.

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