Members of Congress outspent opponents 3-to-1, study says THE POLITICAL SCENES

MONEY WAS INCUMBENTS' KEY

November 07, 1992|By Nelson Schwartz | Nelson Schwartz,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- Money may not have given the edge to President Bush or billionaire Ross Perot this week, but for hundreds of House and Senate incumbents, it proved to be the fine line between victory and defeat, the stuff that greased the wheels of political success.

A study released yesterday by Common Cause revealed that in eight tight Senate races, the incumbents enjoyed a huge advantage in fund raising, outspending their opponents by as much as 3-to-1.

A Washington lobbying group that backs campaign spending reform, Common Cause found the differences were even sharper in House races. Incumbent members of Congress had nearly five times more money than their opponents with a big part of it coming from special interest political action committees (PACs). Moreover, incumbents had much more cash remaining in the critical last six weeks of the race.

Lynn Yeakel should know. She challenged Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter in the wake of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings and gained notoriety in what was billed as the Year of the Woman.

She lost in a squeaker, falling behind by 70,000 votes, or 2 percent. When it came to campaign spending though, she wasn't even within shouting distance of Mr. Specter. He was able to raise more than $10 million by mid-October, compared to $4.6 million for Ms. Yeakel.

Democrat Geri Rothman-Serot also discovered that membership has its privileges. While she was able to raise $784,000, Sen. Christopher S. "Kit" Bond of Missouri amassed a war chest of almost $5 million by mid-October. Mr. Bond won with 54 percent of the vote, compared to Ms. Rothman-Serot's 46 percent.

Now, with the election of Bill Clinton, the perennial debate over campaign finance has been reinvigorated. Mr. Clinton supports an election spending reform bill that President Bush vetoed in May and has vowed to "clean up Washington" and "bring down the cost of campaigning and encourage real competition."

Congressional backers of the bill hope to make it one of the first items on the agenda next year, perhaps even getting it to Mr. Clinton's White House desk during the administration's first 100 days.

"The reality is that unless you are independently wealthy or have an incredible ability to raise big dollars, you can't run for office today," said Ms. Rothman-Serot. "Our government was supposed to be of, by, and for the people but the cost of campaigning today makes that impossible. People didn't know me, and without money, it's very hard to communicate to voters."

Common Cause's president, Fred Wertheimer, agreed that money made the difference this year. "In a year where change was the byword of our national elections, congressional incumbents once again were protected in their races by a wall of political money, in large part made up of special-interest contributions," he said. Despite all the talk of voter anger and impatience with politics as usual, 93 percent of House members were re-elected, along with 88 percent of their Senate colleagues.

"It isn't who wins or loses," said Mr. Wertheimer. "What we have is a system that doesn't provide challengers with a fair chance to compete. Incumbents won by narrow margins but had huge financial advantages and that makes a huge difference in allowing candidates to compete with voters.

"The answer is a comprehensive reform of the system with a combination of spending limits and clean public resources," he added. Publicly financed elections, although a drain on the Treasury and a strain on the taxpayer's patience with Congress, are the only way to replace "private interest money," he said.

Many of Mr. Wertheimer's prescriptions were in the bill vetoed by Mr. Bush. Republican opponents branded it "welfare for politicians" and argued spending limits would benefit Democratic incumbents, who hold a majority in both houses of Congress.

And Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole said, "The last thing the American people want to hear from Washington is that a bunch of politicians are demanding even more money from the taxpayers so they can stay in office."

The bill would have imposed spending limits of $600,000 for House races and up to $8.9 million for Senate campaigns, depending on state population. In exchange for accepting the limits, candidates would receive at least several hundred thousand dollars in public matching funds. Senate candidates who accept the limits would receive big breaks on the cost of expensive TV time.

The bill would also curb donations to PACs, restrict the flow of money from state parties and limit personal contributions from well-heeled candidates.

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