. . . But Real Campaign Reform Is

November 12, 1991

House Democrats are scheduled to propose today that candidates for the House of Representatives voluntarily limit campaign expenditures to $600,000, $200,000 of which would be a subsidy from the government. This is being presented as a reform whose goal is to make House elections more competitive. Competition is certainly needed. In 1990, according to a study by Common Cause, of 405 incumbents running, 296 were opposed by candidates who had $25,000 or less in campaign funds, and 86 others had less than half as much as their incumbent opponent had.

So only 19 of 405 races were even close to competitive. Unsurprisingly, 389 of those 405 incumbents were re-elected. That is why American voters are frustrated. They know that public opinion is not reflected in such one-sided campaigns. They feel they have no control over government.

Elections can be more competitive -- at a savings to the Treasury, or least at no additional cost. (Which extra cost -- about $160 million every two years -- taxpayers are not about to approve. Presidential campaigns are now subsidized by Treasury funds earmarked by 1040 form filers. Fewer than one in five filers so earmarks, even though it costs the filer nothing. Congress is so unpopular now that probably not one in 10 taxpayers would support a congressional subsidy, even if it came from taxes levied on special interests only.)

The simple, honest way to make incumbent representatives less un-democratically invulnerable is to reduce the subsidized campaign assistance they now get. Staff, postage, stationery, broadcast facilities, travel allowances and so forth give every incumbent a tremendous advantage over a challenger. Everybody in Washington knows congressional staff and perks are far larger and more costly than strictly legislative necessity requires. Sen. Bob Kerrey proposed last week that staffs be cut by 30 percent. Capitol Hill's support structure is in large part an incumbent protection racket.

Take mail alone. Some incumbents have sent out as many as 600,000 pieces of literature in an election cycle. Suppose that was drastically reduced -- or, as has also been proposed, challengers were given a free ride for their campaign literature inside those same envelopes. Real reform along such lines would lead to more competitive elections, to more turnover, and restore to voters a sense of control.

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