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.

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.

Some experts on political spending, such as Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, say that reform has already served its purpose by revealing who is trying to influence legislation. Dr. Sabato and a number of other experts doubt that private political spending can be effectively curbed in a free republic like the United States. Indeed, many experts favor a high level of spending as the best way to foster a competition of political ideas.

Meanwhile, the PACs are rushing to their own defense.

Patricia Theno, president of the National Association of Business Political Action Committees, says of the White House plan:

``[The President's] recommendations on PACs are counterproductive from a public-policy standpoint and shortsighted from a partisan standpoint. They would discourage legitimate and healthy citizen participation in the political process....

``Candidates would be forced to meet ever-rising campaign costs from a dwindling supply of narrower sources. ... There would be a proliferation of ... tactics to avoid the new restrictions. In short, what's on the table today involving many different players would go back under the table with fewer and narrower players.''

The White House, however, does not agree. C.Boyden Gray, counsel to the President, notes that before PACs got into campaign funding, members of Congress spent far less to get elected. If most PACs were abolished, spending would decline, he suggests. And that would be healthy for the political system.

Here are highlights of the President's multipart reform package, and the outlook for each, according to Capitol Hill sources:

Eliminate political-action committees supported by special interests. Chances of passage: Poor.

Eliminate leadership PACs through which congressional leaders funnel money to fellow members. Chances of passage: Good.

Reduce contribution limits for remaining PACs from $5,000 per candidate per election to $2,500. Chances: Fair.

Prohibit most bundling, which means combining smaller contributions into a single amount, and sending it to a candidate: Chances: Good.

Prohibit rollover of excess campaign funds into the next election cycle. Chances: Poor.

Ban the use of franking, or free mail, to send out mass mailings from Congress. Chances: Fair to poor.

Eliminate the grandfathering of certain campaign funds. Currently 187 members of the House can convert such funds to personal use. Chances: Good.

Full disclosure of ``soft money'' contributions and expenditures by political parties by which cash, often from wealthy contributors, effects political campaigns. Chances: Good.

Sharply increase party funding of candidates. The current level for House candidates, $46,000, would rise to about $115,000, which would make candidates less dependent on special interests. Chances: Fair.

One proposal that was not included in the President's list was public financing for congressional campaigns. The President noted that such funding ``would force taxpayers to support extremist candidates they abhor.''

But public funding is a favorite of the Democratic leadership, and of Common Cause, a public-interest lobby that plays a big role in the campaign reform debate.

Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause, says the President's package will not solve ``the campaign finance scandal.'' But Bush has ``set the stage'' for reform, and that's a positive step, Mr. Wertheimer says.

First of two articles. Tomorrow: Congressmen support a ban on honorariums.

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