Survey Reveals Support for Reform

Respondents want to change rules on campaign financing, honorariums, free-mail privilege. CONGRESS

CONGRESS is receptive to the concept of extensive changes in campaign financing and ethics rules, a Monitor survey indicates. This is so despite the criticisms that some Democrats and proponents of other reform measures have leveled at President Bush's campaign reform package, announced last week. The Monitor survey was taken in the hectic final days before the July adjournment and just prior to announcement of the President's proposals. Five hundred and thirty-two questionnaires were mailed. Sixty-one members of Congress responded - 35 Democrats and 26 Republicans.

Senators and representatives responding to the Monitor survey strongly supported changes in campaign financing, congressional rules governing fees for speeches (honorariums), and the franking privilege by which members of Congress send mail without themselves paying for postage.

Like the President, congressional leaders are on record this year as favoring campaign finance reform. House Speaker Thomas Foley has called it one of his legislative priorities. Senate majority leader George Mitchell said a week ago that he favors a comprehensive approach by Congress to ethics reform, including campaign finance reform, honorariums changes, a salary increase and ethics legislation.

A bipartisan task force in the House of Representatives is meeting this year to come up with a comprehensive campaign finance reform proposal.

Senators and representatives responding to the Monitor survey overwhelmingly favored changes in campaign financing for congressional elections. A majority recommended reducing the permissible level of contributions from political-action committees (PACs). Such special-interest funds are coming under increasing criticism, in part on grounds of favoring incumbents. Common Cause reports that during the 1988 congressional election campaign, PACs gave $82 million to House incumbents and only $9 million to their challengers.

``But the problem is not the PAC contributions,'' wrote Sen. Terry Sanford (D) of North Carolina, one of the few members who signed his name. He points out that PACs once were considered a reform, providing ``an orderly way to make contributions'' while getting away ``from the outrageously high contributions of individuals and organizations.''

The real problem, Senator Sanford says, is the high cost of campaigning. He was one of several members of Congress who recommended putting a ceiling on the amount of money that could be spent in any one campaign.

In Washington, politicians and political observers admit that the cost of campaigning is high and soaring. Common Cause estimates that last year House candidates spent $204 million - three times what was spent a dozen years earlier. Far fewer senate candidates (only one-third of the Senate was up for election) spent nearly as much last fall, Common Cause figures: $190 million.

One Democratic senator who favors reducing the length and expense of congressional campaigns recommends bill S.137, the Senatorial Election Campaign Act of 1989. He notes that it ``establishes an aggregate limit on PAC contributions for all Senate candidates, varying with the population of their states, and voluntary spending limits.''

Many Democratic respondents from both houses supported at least partial government funding of congressional campaigns, while Republicans unanimously opposed it. One House Democrat noted that public sentiment probably opposes it, too: He said that he ``would support public funding, but there isn't the political support in the country.''

Members of Congress who responded to the Monitor survey voiced near-unanimous support for changes in the honorarium rule: A majority would ban honorariums entirely, and a smaller number would reduce them. One Senate Democrat proposed making honorariums ``subject to approval by the Ethics Committee.''

Members were evenly split as to whether any honorariums changes should take effect all at once or be phased in; one skeptic preferred all-at-once because ``someone will stop the phases.''

Most members supported a salary increase for Congress, to take effect only after the next election. One House Democrat said the raise should not be 52 percent. Several other Congress members specifically indicated that the increase should be modest: ``Continuing increases [should be] keyed to the cost of living,'' said one Senate Democrat - a view that others shared.

Another Senate Democrat offered a compromise: a roll-call vote on setting up a structure to phase in salary increases, and then letting the increases automatically take effect without the need of subsequent votes.

A heavy majority of survey respondents in Congress would require members to take a roll-call vote on their own salary. Many said that a salary increase should be coupled to change in the honorarium rule - this ``may be the only feasible way,'' said a House Republican.

A large majority of respondents also favors reform of the franking law, which permits members of Congress to send letters at taxpayers' expense to constituents and others, although use of the privilege just prior to elections is restricted. The majority favored limiting the amount that could be spent each year.

Political observers and the party out of congressional power, the Republicans, frequently criticize the franking privileges of incumbents as a primary reason - along with the fund-raising advantages of incumbency - that members are reelected at a better than 95 percent rate. Common Cause labels the frank ``a form of public financing for incumbents only.''

Sanford concurs with a common criticism that, in his words, ``some mailings appear to be campaign documents.'' He supports ``some reasonable limitation,'' based on a study of the problem.

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