Rich candidates need limits, too

March 21, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- One of the obvious evils in today's politics is the ability of wealthy individuals to buy elections, or at least make a serious try. We have seen the attempt on the national level with presidential candidates Ross Perot and Steve Forbes and on the state level with folks like Al Checchi and Michael Huffington in California.

They all failed, but in the process they raised the bar so high in what it takes to run a competitive race that some very qualified candidates have been forced to the sidelines. Their wealth has also enabled them to sidestep the traditional yardsticks for candidacy such as past public service and a demonstration of public support.

The Senate already has a number of multi-millionaire members whose wealth enabled them to outspend their opponents on the way to election. The list includes one of the newest senators, Democrat Jon Corzine of New Jersey. Other incumbents who aren't rich have been forced to spend inordinate time fund-raising to survive against fat-cat challenges.

The problem stems from a 1976 Supreme Court decision that held while limits could be placed on contributions to other people's campaigns, no limits could be placed on candidates spending their own money to be elected because such limits would violate their First Amendment protection of free speech.

In the opening round of the Senate debate on campaign finance reform, well-meaning senators of both parties have pushed through an amendment to the McCain-Feingold bill aimed at countering this increasing phenomenon of the rich buying their way into public office. Passed by a 70-30 bipartisan vote, it provides that in the guise of creating a level playing field, a non-wealthy candidate running against one of these self-financed candidates can raise funds exceeding the normal limit of contributions, now $1,000 in a given race.

But the obvious result of the amendment, to a bill whose objective is to drive money out of politics, is to inject more of it than ever. The $1,000 limit on an individual contribution will go up in stages to $6,000 or more, and there will be nothing to prevent the rich candidate raising the ante to maintain his or her money advantage.

Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, one of the co-sponsors of the main reform bill seeking to ban all unregulated contributions ("soft money"), voted for the amendment, citing a desire to encourage compromise in the overall debate. Even Mr. Corzine voted for it.

But Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle warned that the amendment "flies in the face of reform." Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut observed that passage meant that, rather than driving money out of the process, "the gates are open and the race is on."

The votes for the amendment by Mr. Feingold and his co-sponsor, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, suggest they don't see it as the sort of "poison pill" advanced by Republican foes of reform in the past so as to force Democrats to vote against the main bill. But it hardly keeps with the basic objective of McCain-Feingold to make money less the engine that powers federal elections.

A better way to address the question of wealthy individuals buying their way into elective office is to challenge the Supreme Court decision that in 1976 equated spending one's own money to get elected with that person's constitutional guarantee of free speech. For nearly a quarter of a century, that ruling in Buckley vs. Valeo has been regarded as sacrosanct, but should not be.

The court in that decision accepted the idea that limits can be placed on the contributions to campaigns of non-candidates as a safeguard against the corrupting influence of money. It can be argued that the self-financing of campaigns by the wealthy can corrupt the process by discouraging competition.

Constitutional scholars working through the Brennan Center for Justice in New York have been exploring such a challenge as the means to impose limits on multi-millionaires trying to buy themselves high public office.

The vote in the Senate for pumping more money into elections to counter the fat-cat millions should spur these scholars to get their argument before the Supreme Court.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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