American Campaign Finance: Can Congress Fix It?

Article excerpt

Campaign finance reform is moving to the forefront of the congressional agenda. Growing public revulsion at the present system, amplified by scandals like those involving the "Keating Five" senators, is taking its toll both on the institution and its members.

It is easy to forget that the present system of accounting for political money is itself a reform. By the early '70s, dissatisfaction with the influence of big money in elections was reaching intolerable levels. The success, and excess, of the Nixon presidential campaigns in obtaining large individual and corporate contributions finally pushed Congress into a reform of campaign financing in 1974.

It was this "reform" which brought forward political action committees (PACs), the bete noir of today's financing structure. Then the law of unintended consequences kicked in with a vengeance. PACs sprang up at a dizzying rate. After a few elections, labor quickly reacted to the increased participation by business. Soon PACs, even business PACs, overwhelmingly gave to incumbents. Far from becoming a useful Republican electoral tool, PACs have become a major factor in incumbent preservation.

Most astonishing of all was the fact that socalled "unaffiliated PACs," those not visibly associated with any parent organization, became major players. Such "unaffiliated PACs" became the chosen instrument of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its Zionist supporters. By setting up dozens of such PACs, all with non-descriptive names, supporters of the Israeli government were able to channel millions of dollars into the electoral process in each two-year election cycle.

Worst of all, the same big money continued to flow in even bigger quantities. So, in 1991, we are in for another round of Senate debate on campaign finance reform. Since Democrats control the Senate, their proposal is the one to watch. Its key provisions include:

- elimination of PACs;

- reduced broadcast advertising rates for federal candidates;

- state-by-state voluntary spending limits on campaigns;

- subsidized postage and TV ads for candidates who accept the limits;

- additional public subsidies for candidates whose opponents break the limits or who face independent expenditure campaigns greater than $10,000.

(An independent expenditure campaign is one which is run to promote a particular viewpoint on a specific policy question without reference to any one candidate.)

The Republican proposal does not contain public financing. Instead, it limits large out-of-state contributions. Since both sides seem to have agreed to eliminate PACs, public financing is the key point of disagreement between the parties; Democrats continue to insist on it, Republicans continue to reject it.

Regardless of whether there is a compromise or a victory for one side or the other, this is one of those cases where the cure could easily turn out to be worse than the disease. Since money will continue to find its way into elections, the limitations on candidate spending will merely rechannel the money being spent, not reduce it. And where will the money go?

That's not hard to figure out. It will go into independent expenditure campaigns, which will in turn proliferate like sand flies (and be about as pleasant). This will be the "unintended consequence" of the 1991 campaign finance reform. Every urban area will sprout a plethora of local committees. …