While Washington Dithers, States Cap Campaign Funds

Article excerpt

After waiting for years for politicians to control campaign spending, many voters are taking matters - and the law - into their own hands.

Ballot initiatives that limit campaign spending have passed in 22 states, and voters in three more states - California, Colorado, and Maine - will have the chance to vote for similar laws this November. The candidates in two high-profile senatorial races - in South Carolina and in Massachusetts - have responded to the public mood by voluntarily capping their campaign coffers. One senate hopeful in New Hampshire has decided to reject contributions larger than $100.

Reformists say public anger over money in politics has reached a critical mass. "Politicians are responding to public demand for a reform of the electoral process," says Donald Simon, a spokesman for Common Cause in Washington. "People really want something to be done about this out-of-control spending." The cost of campaigning has risen as polls, focus groups, and television ads have become more sophisticated. In 1976, the average successful Senate candidate spent $610,000. Six years later, the figure had jumped to $2 million. By 1994, it had reached $4.5 million. The trouble with all this money is that it comes with strings attached, says Ellen Miller of the Center for Responsive Politics, an independent research group in Washington. "More money is being spent in campaigns, it's coming from fewer people, and contributors regularly cash in on the contributions they've made," she says. The sugar industry, she notes, contributed $1.4 million to campaigns from 1989 to 1995. The industry won backing to keep loan supports for farmers earlier this year. Among the 61 senators who voted against cutting the sugar program, 10 were top recipients of sugar campaign contributions. Some politicians argue that giving $1,000 to a candidate or $5,000 to a special interest group is a constitutionally protected form of free speech. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, who led an effort to stall a popular bill to overhaul campaign spending laws this spring, says current law makes it impossible to buy a candidate with a single check. He dismisses public funding of campaigns, a main goal of reformers, as "an entitlement program for politicians." While campaign reform has stalled in Washington, it has picked up speed at the state level. As a result of ballot initiatives, Michigan, New Jersey, and Wisconsin provide candidates with matching public funds in return for pledges to limit spending. …