Meager campaign fund favors wealthy and well-known candidates

January 21, 1998|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Major trouble looms for all but the most well- heeled of prospective candidates for the next presidential election.

The reason: The federal fund that will subsidize qualified candidates through the year 2000 presidential primaries is so meager that as of now, the recipients will be able to draw only a small portion of what they will need to make it through the first critical contests.

Splitting the pie

According to the Federal Election Commission, which doles out the subsidy from a pool based on the $3 checkoff on individual income tax returns, only $25 million will be available to be split up among as many as 10 likely candidates. Because no incumbent will be running,

competition is expected to be lively in both parties.

If 10 should run and qualify, that means each will receive only $2.5 million at the start of 2000 for nomination fights that the experts predict may cost a serious contender $20 million.

The shortfall is a direct result of public disaffection from the political process, as seen in a sharp drop in taxpayers who check off a pittance annually to fund the presidential campaign. From a high of only 28 percent participation in 1982, when the checkoff was $1, those agreeing to have $3 spent dropped last year to less than 13 percent.

Joan Aikens, chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission, says that because of the shortfall, candidates will not receive all the money for which they have qualified Jan. 1, 2000, and the available funds instead will have to be prorated.

As a result, she says, ''It's quite possible that we may find more and more candidates'' deciding not to accept any federal subsidy, because to receive federal money they must agree to accept limits on spending. With the federal payoff so small, she suggests, candidates may well decide they'll be better off going it alone. Such a development would give even greater advantage to wealthy, self-financing candidates such as Steve Forbes and those who either have already built up substantial campaign treasuries or have a solid base or reputation for raising money, such as Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and former Vice President Dan Quayle.

Matching funds

In the past, the expectation of the federal government matching a candidate's private fund-raising success has spurred frantic activity by prospective candidates in the year before the presidential election. The federal campaign finance laws stipulate that Uncle Sam will match all funds raised in that year up to the first $250 from any individual.

In 1995, Republican hopeful Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas beat the bushes almost nightly to get the largest federal ''match'' possible, in the belief it would indeed take $20 million to win the nomination. He openly told audiences that ''the best friend you can have in politics is ready money.'' He garnered much of it, but still failed to be nominated. Mr. Forbes in 1996 declined to accept the federal subsidy and hence was not subject to any spending limits, putting him at a great advantage over the other Republican contenders. His freewheeling spending helped drive most of the others into early bankruptcy and out of the race. If other candidates also turn down the federal subsidy for 2000, it might well mean an even earlier and more frenzied competition for contributions from private givers and special interests.

One of the major problems for the FEC is a requirement in the law that it first set aside funds for the two major parties' national conventions and for their nominees to run their fall campaigns. Although there is actually $174.5 million in the fund, $149 million of that amount must go to these priorities before any money can be given to candidates seeking their parties' nominations.

One solution might be for Congress to change this requirement, or to once again boost the checkoff amount, but in light of the growing unwillingness of taxpayers to agree to the current $3 figure, that's not considered likely.

A disinterested public

Ms. Aikens says that in 1992, she launched a public relations effort to encourage more taxpayers to use the checkoff, but to no avail. Mailings were sent to all accounting firms and certified public accountants asking them to remind their clients of the checkoff box on their income-tax returns, but that didn't help much either.

So presidential hopefuls for 2000 face a much stiffer money challenge than in the past, with the Steve Forbeses of the world having even greater advantage.

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

Pub Date: 1/21/98

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