What political campaigns need is lots more money

November 26, 1996|By Theo Lippman Jr.

MOMENTUM IS building for ''campaign- finance reform.'' Hold on to your wallets, taxpayers!The last time Congress ''reformed'' campaign finance, it trebled the amount of money that is taken out of the Treasury (your money) and given to presidential candidates. That was in 1992.

The law allowing taxpayers to designate Treasury funds for candidates went into effect in 1972. A taxpayer could check off on his 1040 form a $1 contribution to the fund. This wasn't that taxpayer's $1. It was everybody's. The checker-offer's taxes remained the same. But that dollar was no longer available to reduce the debt or buy a fighter plane.

So for 20 years taxpayers could direct Treasury funds for one specific purpose -- campaigns. The public hated this reform, more and more each year. From the beginning about three out of four taxpayers declined to check off. In 1992, five out of six did, and I'll bet that when final figures are in for 1996 it will be six out of seven.

Because of this decline Congress raised the amount a check-off would allocate to candidates to $3. In a way that made sense. Inflation had made the original $1 relatively insignificant after 20 years.

But many of the same reformers who pushed Congress to increase that 1992 raid on the Treasury are now demanding that private contributions to candidates and political parties, which remain at the 1972 level, hold steady or be decreased.

These reformers believe there is too much money -- especially private money -- in the system. Of course, just the opposite is true. We spend far too little on political campaigns. That is why so many voters are uninformed about candidates and issues -- and why turnout remains so low.

A pundit whose work I respect wrote this after the last election, in which turnout fell to a 72-year low:

"Immobile rumps"

''When all the money that special interests poured into campaign coffers is counted -- $650 million by one estimate -- someone will notice that voter turnout was the lowest since 1924. More people voted with their immobile rumps than with their feet.

''So whatever the sum, it was the most misspent in history.

''If automobile advertising was that effective, half the people who need cars would never buy one.''

Now for the facts: That $650 million estimate is for the presidential part of the campaign. It will probably be higher than that when all the accounts are settled and public funds are added. That's all costs for campaigning. Advertising (mostly television) for George Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992 cost only $101 million. In 1996 the three-candidate race cost much more.

Say it was twice as much. Say $200 million. In 1992 automobile advertising in the U.S. totaled $5.9 billion -- that's Billion. And how successful was it? Well, in a nation with 173 million licensed drivers (and slightly more autos on the road than that), only 6.2 million bought new cars that year.

Maybe the others didn't ''need cars.'' Well, non-voters don't necessarily ''need'' to vote. If you like all the candidates equally, or hate them all, or think, as George Wallace used to say, that there isn't a quarter's worth of difference (that's a 1968 dime adjusted for inflation), why bother? The fact still is this: Drivers and would-be buyers of automobiles are told far more about cars than voters and would-be voters are told about candidates for high office.

And it's not just cars. General Motors spent $1.3 billion on advertising in 1992, but Philip Morris spent $2 billion and Procter & Gamble spent $2.2 billion.

For all federal, state and local offices and ballot issues in the 1991-1992 election cycle, all spending including advertising, salaries, transportation, polling, research, etc., -- all multi-million-dollar endeavors -- was only $3.2 billion. In those same two years Coke and Pepsi spent $2.6 billion on advertising. Seagram alone spent more on ads then than Messrs. Bush, Clinton and Perot combined.

Democracy depends on an informed electorate. Real reform calls for more spending, not less. Contribution limits should be abolished or at least raised to high heaven -- so long as instant public reporting of large contributions was required. Expenditures should be limitless, too -- though it would be a good idea to specify what parties and candidates can and cannot spend money for.

If the 1970s-era campaign laws (themselves reforms) were changed by Congress (or the Supreme Court, which has been showing unhappiness with restrictions on campaign spending, which it equates, properly, with speech), you would get more and better-informed voters going to the polls.

Theo Lippman Jr. often writes about campaign financing.

Pub Date: 11/26/96

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