Campaign Spending: Reforming Reforms


IT takes an incredible amount of money to run for federal office these days: $4 million to win the average Senate seat, for example, according to Sen. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma. Winning a House of Representatives seat can cost hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars. Most of the money goes to the Scud missile of political campaigning, the television ad.

The consequence is that only candidates with their own personal wealth or the ability to raise these huge sums can successfully run for office. Thus the major preoccupation for the incumbent and his or her challenger is amassing a campaign war chest.

Polls show that the public is disgusted with campaign financing practices and believes that its elected representatives are more interested in serving contributors than ``average'' constituents. The Keating Five controversy, in which five senators were reprimanded over their relationship to Charles Keating and his now-failed savings and loan, has given impetus to several campaign-finance-reform bills now before Congress.

The irony is that this situation is the result of the last campaign reform. In 1974, after the Watergate scandal, Republicans and Democrats were eager to clean up campaign fund-raising, which had figured highly in the affair. The allegations centered around whether President Nixon had raised milk price supports after the dairy industry had pledged $2 million to his 1972 campaign, and whether he had terminated a Justice Department antitrust suit against the ITT Corporation after it had pledged to finance the Republican convention. Nixon denied acting improperly.

In the aftermath, Congress decided to limit the amount individuals and corporations could contribute to federal campaigns. The reform law decreed a limit of $1,000 per individual and $5,000 per organization for each candidate.

The hope was that the restrictions would diminish the influence of wealthy corporations and individuals. What happened was that hundreds of ``political-action committees (PACs)'' were formed so that special-interest groups could contribute to campaigns. Candidates are put in the position of chasing these PACs for donations, which the PAC often awards on the basis of whether or not the candidate agrees with it on a single issue.

The downside of the contribution limits was that they unintentionally restricted who could run for office. Both Eugene McCarthy, who ran in the Democratic primary in 1968, and George McGovern, the Democratic candidate in 1972, financed their campaigns with large contributions from a few friendly individuals and organizations. It is questionable whether either campaign would have gotten off the ground under the 1974 rules.

Many reform groups and Democrats argue that the only answer to the campaign financing quandary is to pay for campaigns out of public funds and limit campaign spending.

Both concepts, however, are anathema to most Republicans. They believe public financing will spawn a stultifying election bureaucracy and waste public funds. The GOP also maintains that spending caps benefit incumbents, who have a big advantage in name recognition and organization and who get several free mailings each year to their constituents at government expense. The GOP's concern, of course, stems from the fact that most incumbents are Democrats.

At the end of last week, the Senate passed a Democratic bill that would set a voluntary spending limit, grant complying campaigns some public funding, and ban PAC contributions. The 56-42 vote went largely along party lines. The bill now goes to the House, which is expected to pass a somewhat different version. But President Bush has threatened to veto any bill that provides for public financing, sets spending caps, or creates different systems for the House and Senate. Senate minority leader Robert Dol e of Kansas has suggested bipartisan talks to craft a bill acceptable to the White House. Unless the parties can bridge their spending-cap gap and agree on public financing, however, the outlook for enactment of a campaign-finance reform law before the next elections is murky at best.

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