We finance congressional elections results in...

THE WAY

October 17, 1990|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

THE WAY we finance congressional elections results in non-competition and the nearly automatic re-election of incumbents. In the House, 90-98 percent of incumbents routinely win.

The cry goes up for reform. And what do we get? House and Senate bills that do exactly the opposite of what is needed. They put limits on campaign contributions and expenditures and provide taxpayers' money to make up for the reduction of private funds.

I say campaigns need more private and less public money. Congress ought to increase contributions and spending limits and reduce the subsidy that incumbents now get (to the tune of several hundred million dollars every two years).

Contributions. The individual limit on a fat cat's contribution to a candidate is $1,000, same as it was when the law was passed. That now buys less in terms of bumper stickers and campaign buttons, ads and commercials than $400 did in 1974.

Expenditures. The Supreme Court says spending limits are unconstitutional. So congressional Democrats are pushing voluntary limits. Challenger and incumbent agree to a limit in return for subsidies. Sounds fair, but it isn't. Challengers for House seats are seldom as well known as incumbents. They need to spend more to compete.

Incumbents are already subsidized to a greater extent than the reform bills propose, and they would continue to get that aid in addition to the new. Challengers would not.

Members of the House have large staffs that do a lot of purely political work. You can't always separate legislative chores from political ones, but everyone who looks into this concludes that much of the taxpayer money spent on an incumbent's staff, travel, telephones and mail has a political intent -- sometimes only a political intent.

Take mail. For this election cycle, Rep. Roy Dyson has mailed out 438,140 news-letters and 219,770 meeting cards. Typically news-letters are full of self-praise: "Dyson Wins Federal Grant for . . . " "Dyson Honored by . . ." Meeting cards invite people to some event Dyson will attend. Postage cost on these items? To Dyson, nothing. To you, $88,263.

Dyson's opponent, Wayne Gilchrest, gets nothing from taxpayers for mailings. This is a fair contest?

But fairness to challengers isn't the real issue. Fairness to the public is. Campaigns will never truly inform the public about issues and candidates, and elections will never reflect public opinion as long as campaigns are so one-sided.

What to do? I'd like to see the limit on private contributions raised, at least to reflect inflation since 1974; say, $2,500. I'd like to see non-incumbents allowed to spend as much private money as they can raise. And I'd like to see incumbents give up the election-related free mailings, etc., that they now get -- or voluntarily accept spending limits.

That would produce true reform in the election process. Also true competition, so don't hold your breath.

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