Campaign Reform

A BILL to wring some of the money out of congressional campaigns and to make House and Senate races more competitive is nearing passage in Congress. The most sweeping campaign-finance reform since 1974, after Watergate, the bill takes a big step toward a cleaner and fairer system for electing federal lawmakers.

Unfortunately, President Bush - evincing little concern that the money chase has a demeaning and perhaps even corrupting effect on American politics - has vowed to veto the bill.

The key element in the bill is voluntary spending caps in House and Senate races (the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment bars mandatory caps). By clamping a lid on spending, proponents hope to reduce the clout of special interests and the time and energy candidates must devote to fund-raising. The cap in House races would be $600,000; in Senate races it would range from $950,000 to $5.5 million, depending on the size of the state.

To induce candidates to keep within the spending caps, the bill offers alternative sources of campaign funds. Candidates for House seats would be eligible to receive up to $200,000 in federal matching funds. Senate candidates could receive, also on a matching basis, vouchers to purchase TV time (a larger expense in Senate than House contests).

Other progressive features of the bill include limits on contributions by political action committees (PACs), and cut-rate mailing rights (to offset incumbents' franking privilege). Most important, perhaps, the bill would restrict "soft money" - virtually unlimited amounts raised by the political parties under state laws but used indirectly to benefit federal candidates. Through this loophole both parties rake in millions from $100,000 givers.

Mr. Bush's main objection is to the spending caps. He says they protect incumbents (predominantly Democrats), contending that challengers need unlimited spending rights to surmount incumbents' advantages in name recognition and media coverage. Yet consider that in House races few challengers of either party come even close to raising and spending $600,000. In nearly all cases, victorious challengers win because of their message or the incumbents' vulnerability, not because of higher spending. Caps would constrain incumbents more than challengers, thereby leveling the playing field.

Besides, it's hard to conceive of a system that protects incumbents better than the present one. Incumbent-reelection rates consistently exceed 90 percent.

Bush and other opponents also denounce the bill's public-financing aspects. Taxpayers, they say, shouldn't subsidize office-seekers. But partial public financing of elections, already used in presidential contests, is a proper investment in the working of American democracy - especially given the ominous impact of money on the current system.

It is a defect in the bill that its backers haven't yet devised a way to pay for it. But even if it's enacted, the bill won't go into effect until funding sources are found.

The reform bill, already passed by the House, deserves approval by the Senate and the president's signature. In this year of the political outsider, Bush looks like the ultimate insider in protecting a money chase that contributes greatly to Americans' distrust of the political system.

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