Penalties not enough to keep politicians in line ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- The Federal Election Commission, the governmental watchdog on campaign spending, has awakened from its institutional slumber to bite yet another candidate -- Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole -- but the teeth marks have barely broken the skin.

The FEC has fined, and Dole's 1988 presidential campaign has agreed to pay, a civil penalty of $100,000 -- the largest ever levied -- for having "knowingly accepted" $64,043 in illegal corporate campaign contributions. It has also ordered the campaign to repay another $104,564 in funds from individuals and corporations that either were illegal or in excess of legal payments.

The total is peanuts in a campaign that according to the FEC raised and spent $28.3 million in Dole's unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination won by George Bush (who raised and spent $33.9 million). Had Dole captured the nomination, the penalty and the repayment would have been a small price to pay -- a fact that encourages winking at the limits by all the candidates more than it scares them into compliance.

Had the disclosure of the misbehavior come during the campaign, it might have been detrimental to Dole's presidential bid, but there was no chance of that. The FEC investigative process takes so long, and is so under funded, that the findings are not available until long after a given campaign is history. So candidates are more than willing to risk infringement of the campaign spending laws if doing so offers them a chance of victory.

The Dole campaign had already repaid $245,534 as a result of an FEC audit of the way it had used taxpayer subsidies provided to eligible candidates. Such audits also lag years behind any election and hence have little deterrent value against misuse.

Dole's response to all this has been a broadside against all public financing of elections, an integral feature of President Clinton's recommendations for campaign reform, calling the penalty against him "the best example yet of why we don't need public financing of congressional campaigns."

Dole went on: "If it takes five and a half years and untold taxpayer dollars to audit one presidential primary campaign, just imagine how big a bureaucracy you'd need to audit 435 House campaigns and 33 Senate campaigns every two years. The FEC would be bigger than the Pentagon."

Dole has a point, but it doesn't address the matter of law-breaking, for which candidates customarily receive a slap on the wrist from the FEC.

In light of how small and tardy the penalties usually are, it's surprising the pains to which most campaigns go to comply with the limits imposed by campaign finance laws. They hire large staffs of accountants whose sole task is striving to comply with these laws -- or, some say, to find ways around them.

Dole argued that much of the penalty assessed against his 1988 campaign was based on the campaign exceeding spending limits in various states, limits that have since been abandoned as unworkable.

To stay within the limits, calculated on the basis of voter population in each state, campaigns have resorted to various ludicrous devices. In just one example, they have housed staffs across borders in neighboring states to stay under the limits.

The Senate minority leader engages in hyperbole when he says the FEC would have to be another Pentagon to police congressional campaign financing, but it doubtless would require major expansion. Its staff is woefully inadequate right now to cope merely with presidential campaigns -- which is OK with many legislators who never liked the idea of having a federal watchdog looking at them in the first place.

Still, for all of its shortcomings, the Federal Election Commission has functioned as a restraining force on campaign spending abuses.

While the FEC itself does not have the resources to blow the whistle on such abuses in the course of a presidential campaign, suspected violations often are the subject of press accounts that can hurt a candidate.

But as long as violators get away with civil penalties that they usually can pay out of accumulated campaign funds, the abuses are going to continue.

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