Campaign 'Reform' That Isn't

May 05, 1993

Many Democratic members of Congress want to raise the present income-tax campaign fund checkoff from $1 to $5, then raid the Treasury to the tune of some $180 million every two years to subsidize candidates for the House and the Senate. The stated goal of this is to keep special interests from buying influence on officeholders with campaign contributions. In return for the subsidy, candidates would be limited in accepting private contributions. Thus, fat cats and political action committees would be thwarted.

Don't you believe it. Wealthy individuals and groups who have an interest in government activity will always find a way to use their money. Recall that the very same reformer members of Congress now urging campaign subsidies for congressional candidates sold the nation back in the 1970s on a presidential campaign subsidy by saying that it would end fat cats' influence. So since 1976, presidential candidates have gotten Treasury funds -- and special interest spending in presidential campaigns has soared to about double the private spending in 1972, the last election before public subsidization began.

How could this happen? Because the reform laws were, as all such laws must be, full of loopholes. When you start monkeying around with the right of people to try to influence elections with their votes, their time or their money, you are on very tricky terrain.

Existing campaign finance law has many good features. Record keeping and public information about contributions is much better than it used to be. The average voter can find out almost to the dollar what a candidate for Congress and president received and from whom. The Federal Election Commission keeps very detailed records.

Those records show, by the way, that for the 1992 elections, congressional candidates spent $678 million. No one thinks that in 1994 or 1996 that can be cut down to anywhere near the $180 million or so that raising the checkoff to $5 could supply. Candidates will still need plenty of private money -- and they'll find ways to get it.

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