WASHINGTON -- Ever since the Watergate scandal triggered presidential campaign finance reform, candidates who have been able to demonstrate a modest fund-raising capability have enjoyed a generous federal subsidy. In 1988, a total of $178.2 million was split among both parties' White House aspirants.
But as 1992 approaches, the Federal Election Commission, which disburses the largess, has notified Congress there isn't going to be enough money in the pot to meet the projected needs for the next presidential election.
The reason: With every year, a lower percentage of taxpayers check off the box on their income-tax returns agreeing that $1 should be allocated to this purpose. On returns for the 1980 election year, only 28.7 percent of taxpayers checked off, and that figure slipped to 20.1 percent for the 1988 election. At the same time, the amount of money required went up, because payments to candidates are indexed for inflation.
Aware that these days candidates are about as popular with taxpayers as a bad cold, the FEC is searching for the least painful way to raise contributions or, failing that, cut the allocations to candidates. And if that latter step is taken, assuming President Bush has no serious primary opposition in 1992, it will be the Democratic primary challengers who take it in the neck.
The FEC is trying as a first step to find out why more taxpayers aren't willing to spring for a buck to support a system that tries to limit the influence of fat cats and special interest groups in presidential elections. Under the system, candidates who can raise $5,000 in 20 different states in amounts of $250 or less are eligible for a dollar-for-dollar matching payment from the U.S. Treasury. If they take the federal subsidy, they must agree to spending limits in each state and an overall total.
One reason more taxpayers don't check off, FEC staffers suspect, is that they don't know about the system or don't understand its purpose. They say computerized tax-preparing firms often don't inform taxpayers of the option.
The easiest answer to the shortfall is somehow to get more taxpayers to ante up the buck. The notion of getting Congress to agree to doubling the voluntary contribution to $2, or simply appropriating the additional money, would cause nightmares among the good legislators who learned from their pay-raise fiasco how taxpayers feel about giving politicians anything beyond what they already get.
Rep. Al Swift, D-Wash., chairman of a House subcommittee on elections, suggests a "negative checkoff": The dollar would be assigned to the fund if a taxpayer did not explicitly say no. This tTC is the same dodge that various book, record and video clubs use -- sending out the monthly selection automatically if a rejection card isn't sent back by a certain date. In this case, a taxpayer's ignorance, indifference, laziness or forgetfulness would help the fund, but in the long run this approach might also breed hostility toward the system.
The FEC has suggested also that the secretary of the Treasury, who determines the allocations for presidential primary candidates, might want to cut the subsidy to 85 cents for every dollar raised under the small-giver formula. But this reduction, FEC aides speculate, could discourage candidates from accepting the subsidy, freeing them to raise and spend as much as they want privately, thus defeating the purpose of the whole scheme. Keeping financial records for the FEC has become a major headache anyway and some candidates might turn down the federal payout, as Republican John Connally did in 1980. He then raised about $13 million.
No other presidential candidate has ever opted to pass up the subsidy, and only one, Ronald Reagan, raised as much money as permitted under the campaign finance reform, although Pat Robertson came close in 1988. The little-known candidates -- the Bruce Babbitts and the Pete duPonts of 1992 -- stand to lose most by the fund shortfall, and that could be another discouragement of long-shot candidates the next time around.
Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.