Skirting landmines on campaign funds

March 29, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Vice President Al Gore is nothing if not relentless in his bid to become the Democratic John McCain on campaign finance reform. His latest exercise in self-inoculation against Gov. George W. Bush's attacks on his 1996 re-election fund-raising excesses is a sweepingly ambitious new reform plan, but one that is filled with political landmines.

Beyond promising to make his first act as president pushing for the ban on soft money proposed by Mr. McCain and others, Mr. Gore has come up with a scheme whereby House and Senate -- but, notably, not presidential -- campaigns would be financed through public-private endowment.

In the same way universities gather contributions and employ conservative investors to build a fat nest egg with which to provide, among other things, student scholarships, Mr. Gore's plan would create a $7.1 billion "Democracy Endowment" that would underwrite all House and Senate candidates who agree not to undertake fund raising on their own.

Individuals, corporations, labor unions and other groups would be called on to contribute to the endowment over seven years, until enough money was in the kitty to carry on the fiinancing of congressional campaigns using the interest alone.

The incentive for contributors would be a 100 percent tax deduction for whatever they gave until the $7.1 billon was raised. That same basic idea is behind the current scheme whereby taxpayers can check off $3 on their income-tax returns to go into the pool to help finance presidential primaries, conventions and general-election campaigns.

That plan, however, has been a very weak sister. Starting out with a $1 checkoff, voter participation became so increasingly dismal that the amount had to be bumped up to $3. It still threatens to fall well short of raising enough money to give the primary candidates this year the money to which they are entitled under the federal subsidy law on the books.

As things go in the campaign finance game now, the major incentive for giving is not a tax break but the hope -- and often the reality -- of greater access to a candidate, in the expectation that if elected, he or she will remember from whence the handout came.

Mr. Gore's chief policy adviser, Elaine Kamarck, says the plan is premised on the notion that big political contributors are fed up with being dunned for money by every like-minded candidate who comes down the pike. She believes they will be receptive to giving to one big pot without strings attached, so that in seven years, the care and feeding of candidates will be out of their hands.

This is quite a leap of faith in the pure civic-mindedness of folks who have contributed big money to candidates through soft-money loopholes in the past, with their identities known to the recipients.

The Gore plan calls for the "Democracy Endowment" to be administered and doled out by a board of trustees appointed by the president with the approval of the Senate. You can just imagine the partisan circus.

If the $7.1 billion was not raised by the end of seven years, broadcasters would be required to make up the shortfall by providing free air time to candidates. The broadcasters have resisted providing such free time now and predictably would continue doing so. But Ms. Kamarck argues that they might well be induced to contribute generously to the endowment to avoid a shortfall.

Mr. Gore, in announcing the plan, conceded that he may be "an imperfect messenger" to advance it, considering his dirty hands in fund raising in 1996. The obvious suspicion is that he's throwing it up as protective covering against Mr. Bush's attacks, and to put Mr. Bush on the defensive on campaign finance reform. But at least it will keep the issue on the front burner, which is all to the good.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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