In any other democracy, it would be a scandal

February 15, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- Money always is part of politics, but not the kind of money Americans now are spending, and there is gathering recognition that this has to change.

The man who has spent the most money this season to become president, $16.5 million thus far, Steve Forbes, ran a poor fourth in the Iowa presidential caucuses Monday. But all three of the Republican candidates who ran ahead of him spent sums that would be considered astronomical and unacceptable in other Western democracies.

Bill Bradley retired this year from the Senate because of his discouragement with the way politics now are practiced. Some have wanted him to run for president as an independent.

He was in Europe a few days ago, and in a long and frank conversation with reporters said that an independent presidential candidacy is not only impossible financially for anyone not a Ross Perot or Steve Forbes, but all but impossible practically because of the electoral-college system (by which the electoral vote need not reflect the popular vote).

However, he has not retired from politics. He now is committed to a national campaign to cut the influence of money, by means of a campaign at state level to change the system. With this, he is putting himself at the center of the politics of campaign reform.

The need for reform is obvious. Media expenditure alone -- television, radio, newspaper and billboard advertising -- averaged $2.4 million in contested Senate elections in 1992. In California in 1992 two Senate candidates spent a total of $50 million.

To get this money a senator must raise an average of $7,500 a week during a full six-year term. This is an obscene amount, an instigation to corruption and a perversion of democracy.

Even Rupert Murdoch, who makes a great deal of money out of America's semi-annual transfer of funds from special interests, political activists and public sources to private broadcasters and publishers, describes the system as ''a cancer'' on democracy. It would not be tolerated in his native Australia, nor in any European democracy.

The key to the problem is paid political advertising, chiefly on television and radio, which is prohibited in most democracies. If equal amounts of free (or even government-paid) broadcast time for candidates could be substituted for that, the situation would be transformed.

The Supreme Court, in one of its least impressive displays of constitutional wisdom, ruled in 1976 that limiting what a candidate can spend to be elected infringes free speech. The Federal Election Commission has added its own obstacle to reform by declining (until now) even to authorize broadcasters (or on-line Internet servers) to give away free time to candidates.

Senator Bradley's program involves campaigns in the individual states for legislative resolutions demanding a federal constitutional amendment permitting a cap on candidate spending. If this can be accomplished in 33 states, Congress would be compelled either to consider the amendment or call a constitutional convention. Given the present mood of the public concerning politicians and political spending, such an amendment could easily be on the national agenda well before the required two-thirds of state legislatures have voted.

The Bradley plan would cap a candidate's private spending at a very low level -- in the hundreds of dollars, not the thousands. Campaign finance beyond that would be provided by the candidate's share in a non-partisan fund voluntarily contributed by the public. If the public contributed nothing, there would be no campaign funding beyond what the candidate is personally allowed to spend. The public would decide what the politicians have to spend.

This is a radical route to change. The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Reed Hundt, has a less radical recommendation -- that Congress legislate to allow or require communication companies to provide free time to candidates.

Advertising ban

This is done in nearly every other modern democracy, and it works. I myself believe that paid advertising should simply be banned, but that runs into a constitutional problem which Senator Bradley's plan sidesteps. Free time does not solve all the problems of campaign finance, but it solves the biggest one.

Among Mr. Hundt's other suggestions (in a speech at Princeton in December) is that part of the funds gained from spectrum auctions (public sales of the right to broadcast on the airways) be banked for equitable campaign finance. He also notes the crucial question of restricting what could be done with publicly provided broadcast time.

The obvious restriction would be to ban the attack ad. The European example suggests something better: a requirement that the candidate actually appear, speak, or be interviewed -- without gimmicks.

The goal is to end the campaign system's present pernicious dependence upon vast sums of money, and the corruption of the legislative process caused not only by the pursuit of that money from those who can give it, but its sheer waste of legislators' and candidates' time and energy.

The United States today resembles a plutocracy rather than a democracy. The cause of this is clear. The danger it creates is all too evident. The remedies are not simple but they are available.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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