Rolling back the clock on campaign-finance reform


WASHINGTON -- In 1972, a Chicago insurance executive named W. Clement Stone personally gave more than $3 million to the re-election campaign of President Richard M. Nixon. That bit of generosity eventually became a catalyst for major revisions in the Federal Election Campaign Act in 1974 limiting individual contributions to $1,000.

The rationale was that while $3 million could buy a great deal of political influence, a president would hardly go into the tank for a mere thousand bucks.

That wisdom remains valid, but in opening the door the other day to unlimited ''independent'' contributions to congressional candidates, the Supreme Court could eventually cast it to the winds concerning presidential candidates as well.

The Colorado Republican Party a decade ago spent $15,000 for a radio ad attacking Democratic senatorial candidate Tim Wirth, an amount that put his eventual Republican opponent over the spending limit imposed on his campaign by the same 1974 law. The court ruled that as long as the $15,000 was not spent in coordination with the GOP candidate's campaign, it was OK.

Because the law permitted political-action committees to make ''independent expenditures'' for or against a candidate, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that there was no reason political parties should be denied their First Amendment rights to do the same.

The 7-2 decision did not touch on contribution limits on presidential campaigns under the same law, but four justices in expressing their own views raised questions as to why there should be any limits at all on parties assisting their candidates, whether coordinated with a formal campaign or not.

Campaign-finance reformers reply that without limits, wealthy individuals and groups would be able to buy the presidency, or at least have a corrupting influence on it. The court in the Colorado case seemed to recognize the validity of this answer in saying there was no evidence of such corruption in this instance; nevertheless, some justices seemed to find the First Amendment argument more compelling.

The end of spending limits

Jan Baran, the GOP's expert on campaign finance and the lawyer for the Colorado party in this case, said later that while the decision would not affect contributions in the current presidential race, for the future ''very likely spending limits on political parties are dying.'' He predicted that if parties and groups may now make unlimited independent expenditures, ''it makes no sense to limit others.'' He noted that Justice Clarence Thomas called for re-examining a 1976 decision that said, among other things, that no limit could be placed on a candidate's spending his own money for his own campaign.

Mr. Baran argued that under the First Amendment Ross Perot should be able not only to spend unlimited millions for his own candidacy, as he did in 1992, but also should be able to do the same in behalf of someone else. The current prohibition against it is a sticking point to the possible presidential candidacy of former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm under Mr. Perot's Reform Party banner if Mr. Perot himself doesn't run.

Similarly, multimillionaire Steve Forbes or any other super-moneybags wouldn't have to run himself, but could simply bankroll somebody else. Mr. Forbes said he would have preferred Jack Kemp be the 1996 supply-side candidate. If Mr. Baran's view of the future came to pass, he would be able to finance Mr. Kemp and stay home himself.

Such an outcome, however, would turn the clock back to the pre-Watergate era and restore the ability of latter-day W. Clement Stones to buy an inordinate slice of the presidential-campaign action, if not the presidency itself.

Only two justices, John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, justified money limits as a defense against corrupting the system and as a means, as Mr. Stevens said, of ''leveling the electoral playing field.'' The composition of the Supreme Court should be borne in mind when voters cast their ballots for men who might hold the appointment power.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 6/28/96

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