Campaign reform: not so fast

January 23, 1996|By Mona Charen

WASHINGTON -- One sure way to burnish your populist credentials these days is to come out for campaign-finance reform. A new book, ''The Buying of the President,'' published in association with the Center for Public Integrity, essentially argues that big monied interests -- not the voters -- decide who will be the nominees of the major political parties.

This dovetails with the widespread view outside Washington that politics is a dirty game of money grubbing in which politicians sell their souls and their votes to the highest bidder. The solutions regularly offered up are: limits on contributions to campaigns, free television time, and/or public financing.

The first thing to understand about our current regime is that it is the child of an earlier spree of moralistic reform dating back to the Watergate class of 1974. That was the year the $1,000 limit on individual contributions was imposed along with the prohibition on corporate giving.

10 fund-raisers a month

Much of what people object to about our current system of fund raising is a consequence of those earlier reforms. Because politicians cannot raise money in large chunks anymore, they are forced into the time-consuming and disagreeable task of raising it in small amounts. In practice, that means 10 fund-raising dinners per month instead of one.

As David Frum points out in the Weekly Standard, ''For a big-state candidate for the House of Representatives -- whose polling, consultancy and advertising costs can quickly pass $1 million -- that means tapping a minimum of 200 different donors every two years, and usually many more.''

That's why politicians love political-action committees. PACs do not face the limits individuals do. But one result of the PACing of American politics is to increase, not decrease, the power of small, organized interest groups.

It has also created the phenomenon of the millionaire candidate. People tend to lament the fact that millionaires like Ross Perot and Steve Forbes can end-run the current system by spending their

own money without any limits. But if individuals were permitted to contribute more to candidates, millionaires could put their money into politics without necessarily putting their mouths in.

Don't forget inflation. The cost of campaigning has risen sharply in the past 20 years, but the allowable contributions for individuals have not changed. Those who disdain political advertising should consider the alternative. Without paid political messages, we would be forced to rely entirely on the major media for information about candidates and issues. Conservatives ought to look upon that possibility with skepticism.

Free air time for candidates? Sounds good, but suppose you have 20 candidates running for Congress in Delaware. Who would decide which ones qualify for the free time? And who would reimburse the networks and local stations for their lost revenue?

Public financing schemes run into the same ''who decides?'' problem. If some governmental entity is deciding who shall qualify for taxpayer funds to run for office, the whole business of politics will amount to one political class selecting another. The people will be lost in the scramble.

All of this is not to say that money does not corrupt. It can. And one good reform to emerge from the 1970s was the requirement for financial disclosure. The people ought to know who is giving what to whom.

President Clinton's largest benefactor, according to ''The Buying of the President,'' is the Wall Street investment firm of Goldman Sachs. It is fair to ask whether the Clinton administration's moves to shore up the Mexican economy bore any relation to the financial interests of Goldman Sachs. I happen to think the answer is no, but it's a fair question.

Sen. Robert Dole has received generous contributions from the Gallo wine company. Did this affect the Dole position on inheritance taxes? Again, a fair question, but not a foregone conclusion.

As long as enormous power is wielded in Washington, there will be attempts by those with money to influence it. The sure way to reform campaign finance is to reduce the stakes of the game by reducing the ambit of the state.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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