To help challengers, rein in the PACs

Ellen R. Malcolm

March 31, 1993|By Ellen R. Malcolm

THE escalating activity on campaign finance reform is good news for those who want fair and competitive elections and legislation that is passed on its merits, not because it is a payback to special interests.

This activity is especially welcomed by organizations that support women candidates. They have long recognized that a major barrier to newcomers reaching high office in Washington has been our campaign financing system.

Sure-winner incumbents, mostly men, pull in 90 percent of all political action committee contributions and are thus cemented into office, while underfinanced challengers struggle to be heard in our media-oriented elections.

In last year's election, when change was the byword, nine out of 10 members of Congress who ran for re-election kept their seats.

The administration has proposed to limit the aggregate amount a House candidate can receive from PACs to $200,000. That's a good idea. Currently, there is no limit.

In addition, legislators are debating how much a single PAC can contribute to a candidate. Cutting the PAC contribution limit per candidate from the $5,000 now allowed would reduce the influence of PACs on elections -- the lower, the better.

Public financing would level the playing field for challengers by giving them the resources to make their cases. The current proposals include a $5 income tax check-off. Another proposal would end lobbyists' tax deduction. Both ideas seem sensible.

The best way to loose special interests' hold on Capitol Hill is to increase the participation of individuals who give money because they want to elect good candidates, not because they want to gain power in the legislative process.

Emily's List was created to advance that kind of reform. ("Emily" is an acronym for "Early Money Is Like Yeast.")

Since virtually all women candidates are challengers, our goal is to help make pro-choice Democratic women who seek election to Congress become competitive.

To offset the power of special interests, we created what we call a donor network and what others call bundling.

Our organization recommends candidates by sending out profiles that describe their races and give their positions on many issues. Then members write checks to candidates they choose and Emily's List forwards the contributions to the campaigns.

Last year, we processed more than 63,000 contributions from small donors (the average was under $100) and sent $6.2 million to 55 women running for Senate and House seats. Of these, 25 won.

Some reformers want to outlaw bundling. (Right now, individuals whose money is bundled are limited to $1,000 per candidate per election.) They believe that special-interests groups can abuse it -- that if PACs are limited, many more will turn to bundling as a way to raise money and buy influence.

In our view, the solution is simple: Prohibit organizations and individuals that lobby Congress from bundling contributions.

Bundling by donor networks such as Emily's List, which is a political action committee and not a lobby, and the League of Conservation Voters should be encouraged. Both exact no quid pro quo for campaign donations.

The last thing Emily's List wants is a loophole that would pour special-interest money into campaigns. That would take us back to the very system that kept women out of office.

Since Emily's List began in 1985, we have helped elect the only Democratic women who have ever been elected to the Senate in their own right. In three elections, we have helped triple the number of Democratic women in the House, to 36 from 12.

That is the reality of good campaign reform -- reform that opens up the system and makes representative democracy work for men -- and for women.

Ellen R. Malcolm is president of Emily's List.

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