Stopping the Buck Here: The Case for Campaign Spending Limits

Article excerpt

Everybody--the public, members of Congress, campaign contributors, and, as always, Common Cause--seems to be dissatisfied with the way congressional campaigns are financed. The call for change is loud and steady. Campaign finance reform is such a prominent issue that all three presidential candidates featured it conspicuously in their campaigns last fall. Now that the days of gridlock are over and Democrats control both Congress and the presidency, supporters of reform are optimistic that this year something will actually get done.

The problem is what to do. Incumbents complain that the current system transforms them from legislators into fundraisers who constantly hunt for money out of the fear that their next opponent will be well-financed. Challengers have a different grievance: they claim that the system is stacked against them in that it allows incumbents to raise funds far more easily than they can. The image of politicians' endless chase for money, fueled by the inevitable articles about this PAC or that, makes an already cynical public even more critical of Congress. The charge that members trade votes for contributions, however exaggerated, remains a serious concern.

There is a partisan twist to this issue, too. Because Democrats and Republicans raise money from different sources, any change in policy might affect one party more than the other. As a result, beyond agreeing that the existing system is a mess, Democrats and Republicans see eye to eye on little else. Republicans favor party campaign committees and individual contributors. Democrats want to preserve political action committees' and labor unions' role. But the fiercest point of contention is whether to slow the money chase by setting limits on the amount candidates can spend on their campaigns.

Democrats have long maintained that spending ceilings are an essential part of any campaign finance reform package. They claim that limits will both free candidates from the demands of constant fundraising and reduce the influence of monied interests. Republicans are viscerally opposed to spending limits, which they regard as a Democratic ploy that will guarantee the reelection of incumbents and, not coincidentally, a continued Democratic majority in Congress. That belief has derailed campaign finance legislation in the past, and it may prove strong enough to do it again in the current, 103rd Congress.

Last year a far-reaching campaign finance reform bill that included limits on campaign spending passed both the House and the Senate, only to be vetoed by George Bush. With Bill Clinton in the White House, the outlook for enactment will be different. But there is nothing automatic about the bill's prospects. Recent foot-dragging by the Democratic leadership suggests that some members who supported it last year did so knowing that Bush would veto it. The large turnover on Capitol Hill as a result of last fall's elections is another question mark.

The biggest hurdle for campaign reform this year, as in the past, will be the Republicans' conviction--buttressed by the preponderance of academic analysis--that a bill with spending limits is a virtual Incumbent Protection Act. But that view, which for years has stood in the way of campaign finance reform, is simply mistaken. Spending limits will not harm challengers' chances or make congressional elections less competitive.

The Republican Case for Unlimited Spending

The case against spending limits, no matter who is making it, starts with the image of the almost invulnerable incumbent. And it is a fact that incumbents rarely lose--in the past 10 years, for example, more than 95 percent of House incumbents have won reelection. Among the reasons why are the familiar perquisites of office like the franking privilege, which allows incumbents to flood their constituents' mail-boxes with self-serving missives, and the casework incumbents do to cut through government red tape and secure services for their constituents. …