PACs and Real Reform

February 01, 1991

"The time has come to put the national interest above the special interest and to totally eliminate political action committees."-- President George Bush in the State of the Union address.

"Last year the Senate passed a good bill to . . . eliminate political action committees. We're going to pass it again this year and push until it becomes law." -- Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell in the Democratic reply to the State of the Union.

It is probably impossible to legally end political action committees (PACs). When the Senate passed what Senator Mitchell called "a good bill" last year banning PAC contributions to candidates for federal office, it acknowledged this might be unconstitutional. It added a backup proviso limiting PAC contributions if the courts overturned the ban.

Even if the ban were upheld, PACs could still spend as much money as they desire in behalf of the candidates they support; they would just call it "independent expenditure" and not funnel it through the candidate's campaign treasurer.

In any event, it is politically impossible to ban PACs. Senator Mitchell knows this. His fellow Democrats in the House of Representatives rejected his bill's PAC language last year, and will do so again this year. A special panel of representatives has been set up to handle campaign fiance reform; its chairman is on record in favor of PACs.

The majority leader and the president also know that no PAC bill that Mr. Mitchell can get enacted will Mr. Bush sign. Most Democrats who agree to a PAC ban do so only in return for getting public financing. Republicans loathe that idea. President Bush would veto such a bill and be upheld.

The whole argument is a sideshow, anyway. The problem with campaign financing is not that nearly half of all campaign contributions come from PACs. It is that nearly 90 percent of all PAC contributions go to incumbents. This helps make it a very un-level playing field. Incumbents can't win. Thus there is not enough turnover in Congress to make it a healthy legislative body.

Is it realistic to expect incumbents would write legislation that gives challengers parity or even partial parity? We think so. Republicans ought to favor it as a way to end a generation of minority status. They will continue in the minority unless challengers are helped. Democrats ought to favor it to ward off worse medicine. The public is fed up with elections in which, largely because of a financial advantage, 98 percent of incumbents are re-elected. If the rules of campaigning aren't made fair to challengers (and voters), then the public is going to turn to term limitations as a way to get turnover.

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