WASHINGTON — WHEN THE federal campaign finance reforms were enacted 17 years ago in the wake of the Watergate scandal, they were hailed as the start of a new era of purity in American presidential elections. The sky would no longer be the limit in raising and spending money, as it had been up to then, and notably in Richard Nixon's no-holds barred rout of Democrat George McGovern in 1972.
The reforms indisputably have cleaned up campaign finance in some important ways, among them reducing the direct influence of the old fat-cats who before 1974 were able to plunk down millions of their own money on a favorite candidate, as insurance tycoon W. Clement Stone of Chicago did for Nixon in 1972. But political action committees and other devices have moved in to fill that void.
As part of the enforcement apparatus for cleaner campaigns, the reforms established the Federal Election Commission, a bipartisan appointive body that keeps track of campaign fund-raising and spending and runs detailed audits of all presidential campaigns. Specific limits are set on how much a campaign can spend nationally and in each state, based on its voting-age population, with the FEC as the watchful policeman.
The trouble is that by the time the cop comes in off the beat and writes his report, the crime often has long since been committed, without punishment. The latest example is an FEC report -- more than three years after the event -- that the campaign of Rep. Dick Gephardt, now the House majority leader, exceeded by a whopping 64 percent the spending limit for the 1988 Iowa caucuses that he won. The limit was supposed to be $775,218 for Iowa and the Gephardt campaign spent $1,270,936.
The only punishment meted out under the law was a requirement that the campaign return $126,383 to the federal treasury. That was the amount of public funds in the over
spending calculated as having been received under the federal campaign subsidy law enacted as part of the post-Watergate reforms. In sports, the perpetrator probably would have had to forfeit the game, but as Mr. Dooley said, politics ain't beanbag. Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, who ran second to Gephardt by only four percent in Iowa, will doubtless wonder what might have happened had Gephardt stayed within the state limit.
The Republican winner in the Iowa caucuses of 1988, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, also exceeded the state limit, by $306,730 or nearly
40 percent, according to the FEC. Dole soon afterward went over the New Hampshire primary limit by nearly 66 percent in his losing effort to George Bush. This information is good to know, particularly for prospective 1992 presidential candidates pinning their hopes on strong showings in the early Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. The lesson clearly is, spend whatever it takes, and worry about it later -- but not too much.
Ever since the reforms were put in place, campaigns have hired small armies of accountants to keep their books, always saying they are overburdened by paper work but are doing it because their operatives don't want to wind up in jail. This is a joke. Only one presidential campaign, that of former Gov. Milton Shapp of Pennsylvania in 1976, has ever faced criminal penalties for receiving matching funds illegally, and when the money was paid back all was forgiven.
The report on the Gephardt audit reveals, however, some of the more
imaginative ways campaigns try to stay under the state limit. Regarding Iowa, the Gephardt campaign sought to assign 25 percent of its total spending in Iowa to its national spending limit on grounds that the Iowa caucuses, covered intensively by the national news media, were "inextricably interwined" with the national campaign. The FEC scoffed and reallocated all the money spent in Iowa to that state's limit.
The Gephardt campaign, on a nickel-and-dime matter, failed to report charges associated with wrong and disconnected numbers in its telemarketing program in Iowa, arguing later that such calls didn't influence the outcome of the nomination process. To that one, the FEC said sorry, wrong number, and charged the calls to the Iowa limit.
The problem, obviously, is not the setting of spending limits but the lack of timeliness in blowing the whistle on offenders. Until something is done about it, the lid on spending in these critical early contests will remain meaningless.