One reform that's got to go

November 13, 1997|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- The drive for campaign finance reform was supposed to reach a roaring crescendo this autumn. Instead, two small events -- a memorandum, and last week's voting -- provide a pianissimo coda to a crusade gone flat.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican, wants to repeal an entitlement serving a small number of persons -- public funding of presidential campaigns. Mr. McConnell had better hurry. The taxpayers may repeal it first, by refusing to participate in sufficient numbers to subsidize all the entitled.

Funding crunch

On Oct. 31 the Federal Election Commission received from its staff director, John Surina, a memorandum on the parlous condition of the presidential election campaign fund. Mr. Surina wrote that the fund's projected balance ''will be insufficient to provide timely matching payments to primary candidates. The cash flow shortfall may be so severe that participating candidates might not be made whole until after the conventions.''

In 1996, payments totaling $236 million were disbursed to parties and candidates. These included $24.7 million to fund the vacuums that were the two major parties' conventions, and $29.6 million to fund the egomania of a Texas billionaire whose ''party'' qualified because of the strength of his 1992 run.

No incumbent will be running in 2000 and Mr. Surina says (Vice President Al Gore will not be pleased to note) ''there is no presumptive favorite'' in either party. Thus, the FEC probably will fund more candidates than in 1996, when 11 received subsidies. Mr. Surina makes what he considers optimistic assumptions about what he calls ''receipts'' from the checkoff. He says that before payments are made to candidates in the primaries, the Treasury will set aside a sum deemed necessary for full funding of the two major-party nominees ($68 million apiece) and a minor-party nominee ($13 million) in the general election. He assumes that during 1999 ''we will again witness feverish fund-raising for matching contributions.'' And he calculates that there will be just $25.5 million available to all primary candidates, no matter how many there are, on Jan. 1, 2000.

If so, Surina says, ''the prorated payments will be small indeed'' and a ''prorated payout process might have to continue for the entire year. Bridge loans might not be as easily obtained this time around, and, in any case, servicing those loans over a longer period will require more unproductive campaign outlays for interest.''

Therefore, Mr. Surina says, some primary candidates may forgo public funding, relying on private fund-raising. Mr. Surina's plausible hypothesis is an amusing punctuation to a year of propaganda from much of the political class and the media concerning the evils of private money in politics.

The shortfall in the presidential campaign fund is projected even though the sum that taxpayers can choose to ''contribute'' -- actually, to divert from the Treasury -- was tripled in 1993 from $1 to $3. The complete collapse of this program would be desirable.

The political class enacted taxpayer funding of presidential campaigns in 1974 as a post-Watergate genuflection at the altar of political virtue. Participation in the checkoff peaked in 1980 at just 28.7 percent of taxpayers. So even then, 71.3 percent of taxpayers voted, in effect, against this entitlement. In 1996, the landslide vote against it was 88 percent.

'Voluntary contributions'

Defenders of this entitlement for candidates say it is unobjectionable because it is funded by ''contributions'' that are ''voluntary.'' But what did the 12 percent who participated in 1996 volunteer? They did not ''contribute'' anything, because they did not add $3 to their tax bills. They just authorized a diversion of $3 from general revenues to a demonstrably unpopular program. And because money is fungible, the 88 percent who chose not to participate actually did participate: Their taxes were part of the general revenue stream that got diverted.

The checkoff is a bookkeeping ruse. If the checkoff added $3 to the tax bills of ''volunteers,'' participation would shrivel into a single digit.

Why do the media so strongly favor limiting or displacing private money used to disseminate political communication? Michael Barone, writing in The Weekly Standard, notes that last week's elections underscored the fact that October generally is the Republicans' month:

''Before October, political dialogue tends to be dominated by the 'free media,' newspapers and television stations, about 90 percent of whose reporters, editors and producers are Democrats. For the most part without any conscious intention, they naturally frame the dialogue in terms favorable to Democrats. But in October, the 'paid media' take over -- TV advertisements, radio spots and direct mail. Both parties start to get their messages out unmediated by the press, and the Republicans begin to do better.''

Remember that the next time a supposedly disinterested newspaper editorializes in favor of further restrictions on (other people's) private resources in politics.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/13/97

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