Democrats tie spending caps to public financing of campaigns

November 13, 1991|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- House Democrats fired a new campaign season salvo at the GOP yesterday, unveiling their latest proposal to overhaul the manner in which political campaigns are financed.

The plan, which would provide public financing for congressional candidates who agreed to observe voluntary spending limits, echoed proposals unsuccessfully advanced by Democrats throughout the past half-decade.

But yesterday's announcement was tailored to capitalize on the recent wave of public discontent with Congress -- a discontent that has launched a national drive for mandatory term limits on congressional careers.

"With this bill we declare ourselves strongly in favor of change and strongly in favor of opening campaigns and elections, not just to special interests, but to everyone," said House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo.

Mr. Gephardt's declarations notwithstanding, the bill proposed does not appear to stand much chance of changing anything. Instead, it promises to reignite the long-smoldering philosophical debate between the parties over public financing, campaign spending limits and the role of political action committees, or PACs, in the election process.

The bill would set voluntary limits of $600,000 on each House candidate's spending for primary and general elections, authorizing up to $200,000 in public financing for those who agreed to abide by the limits. It would allow candidates to raise $200,000 from PACs run by business, labor and other interest groups. Finally, in an effort to limit the influence of the wealthy donors, the proposal would allow a maximum of $200,000 worth of individual contributions exceeding $200 each.

For those who didn't agree to those limits, however, the penalty would be stiff: The opponent who did abide by the caps could receive unlimited matching funds.

"It will bring a level playing field to the members of Congress and challengers," said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash.

Representative Sam Gejdenson, D-Conn., chairman of the task force that drafted the legislation, conceded that many people oppose public financing. Consequently, he said, the plan would finance campaigns with funds generated by specific fees, including a charge for registering a political action committee, a fund of voluntary contributions and a cut in the tax deduction for lobbying expenses.

"If we can't handle that, then the country's really in trouble," Mr. Gejdenson said.

President Bush, however, has pledged to veto any bill that contains public financing, a position echoed by his Republican foot soldiers on Capitol Hill, who remain adamantly opposed to the Democrats' bill on both tactical and philosophic grounds.

Campaign spending limits, they say, would cement the advantages of incumbency, since challengers rarely enjoy the name recognition of sitting lawmakers. Republicans go on to call for the abolition of PAC contributions, contending that they undermine lawmakers' independence from special interests backing their campaigns.

Deriding the Democrats' plan as an "incumbent protection bill" designed to secure Democratic majority status, the Republicans plan to offer their own campaign finance bill next week, when the House is scheduled to vote on the Democrats' proposal.

"It's going to go nowhere," admitted one Republican staffer. "This is symbolism from the get-go."

In that spirit, Republicans have steadfastly refused Democratic invitations to discuss campaign financing, insisting that Democrats wouldn't listen to their ideas anyway.

Once the Democrats' bill clears the House, as expected, it will have to be merged with a substantially different version crafted earlier this year by the Democratic majority in the Senate. That will prove no mean feat, since Senate Democrats called for a ban on all use of special-interest PAC money -- something House Democrats say they need to safeguard their political careers.

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