DEMOCRATS in Congress recently passed a campaign finance...

THEO LIPPMAN JR.

May 18, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

DEMOCRATS in Congress recently passed a campaign finance bill that had the stated purpose of providing federal funds to candidates running for Congress.

Actually, the bill did not provide for funding right away. It said "subsequent legislation" must do that. It also said, "It is the sense of the Congress that subsequent legislation shall not provide for general revenue increases, reduce expenditures for any existing Federal program, or increase the Federal budget deficit."

Talk about phoney baloney! In an era of permanent deficit financing, you can't pay for a new program without increasing taxes or the deficit or taking money from another part of the budget. What Congress hoped to do was get the principle of federal funds for their campaigns established in law. Then they would re-write the law later, obtaining money from tax or deficit increases or robbing other programs by opening up some hidden loophole. A lot of money, too: at least $108 million every two years, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate.

Democrats argued that having to raise a lot of money from fat cats and interest groups is demeaning and gives contributors unhealthy influence on legislation. So they want taxpayer money instead of private money, right? Wrong. They want it in addition to.

Candidates could still raise tens of thousands of dollars the old-fashioned way. A member of the House could take about $400,000 from special interests and still get $200,000 of your money. A senator running for re-election could raise up to about $4 million in private funds and still get $1 million from the U.S. Treasury. Raising, say, $7 million or $8 million from special interests is corrupting, but raising $4 million from them is not? Give me a brake. No, make it a tire iron.

Not only would this legislation not end special-interest spending. It wouldn't even reduce it much. Fat cats, PACs, etc., would just find clever new ways to buy influence. After the 1972 election, Congress passed a campaign finance bill for presidential races upon which this new bill is based. It gives presidential candidates taxpayers' money and limits private spending. In 1972, total spending in the presidential campaign was $138 million -- all private money. In 1988, the total was $178 million in federal funds -- and $322 million in private money. Even in constant dollars, special-interest spending went down less than 10 percent.

The worst thing about this legislation is that Democratic leaders on the Hill knew the president would veto it. (He did, ten days ago.) They knew they didn't have the votes to override his veto. (The Senate failed to override last Wednesday -- it wasn't even close.) But they nevertheless spent hundreds of staff hours and member hours on writing and debating and voting on the bill.

These were hours that could have been spent working on something that could actually become law and might actually help the nation in a time of crisis.

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