Bush quietly signs campaign finance law

No ceremony is held

higher donation limit to benefit president

March 28, 2002|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Even reformers concede that the new campaign law President Bush signed yesterday makes only modest overall changes in the political money game.

Bush gave the new rules his official approval with no advance notice or fanfare. He later issued a tepid statement of support. By signing it in private, he deprived the victors in the long campaign finance fight, led by his Republican nemesis, Arizona Sen. John McCain, of the publicity of a White House ceremony.

It kept the world from seeing him put his signature on a measure that will benefit Bush far above all other politicians, despite his lack of public enthusiasm for it.

FOR THE RECORD - An editing change to an article yesterday on campaign finance reform mischaracterized President Bush's participation in the public financing system in the 2000 presidential election. Bush did not receive public funds in the primary election but he did in the general election. The Sun regrets the error.

The overall effect of the new law, which bans unrestricted contributions to national parties, remains a matter of considerable debate among elected officials, party leaders and campaign veterans. Some provisions will be tested in court even before the law takes effect.

Immediately after Bush signed the law, opponents began filing lawsuits. Among those challenging the constitutionality of the law's prohibition on campaign ads by outside groups in the weeks before an election were Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and the National Rifle Association.

One part of the law isn't being challenged: It doubles the amount that individuals can donate to candidates.

That change practically guarantees that Bush will establish a new money-raising record in his re-election campaign. The current mark is his own, set in 2000, when he collected an astounding $117 million.

Bush's fund-raising record was set with personal contributions of $1,000 or less, a limit that hasn't risen since the 1970s, when campaign laws were last overhauled after the Watergate scandal. When the new rules take effect, after the November elections, the limit will increase to $2,000.

The White House refused to release a photograph of what Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle's spokeswoman labeled a "stealth signing."

In a written statement, Bush mustered only grudging praise, calling the law "far from perfect."

"I wouldn't have signed it if I was really unhappy with it," he told reporters. "I think it improves the system because it enables an individual to give more money."

That change will greatly improve Bush's ability to collect money for his re-election campaign, expanding what already was figured to be a huge advantage.

One potential concern for Republicans is that Bush could draw so much money from GOP supporters that it might hurt the fund raising of the party's other candidates.

Under the new rules, an individual can contribute up to $2,000 to a candidate. That limit applies separately to the primary and general elections, and to contributions presidential candidates raise to defray the cost of complying with federal election laws, such as paying accountants and lawyers.

In Bush's case, a donor could give him $2,000 for the primary season, whether or not he has a Republican opponent. If Bush opts out of the public financing system for the general election as he did in 2000, the same donor could contribute an additional $2,000 for that portion of the campaign. Finally, the donor could give another $2,000 to Bush's compliance fund. Often, wealthy donors contribute both for themselves and their spouses, which could mean up to $12,000 per couple.

Bush "had an incredible fund-raising year as a non-incumbent" in 2000, says Paul S. Herrnson, director of the University of Maryland's Center for American Politics and Citizenship. "This time, he's the president."

The amount Bush could collect, said Herrnson, "could double. It could triple. The sky's the limit."

Bush's Democratic rivals, meanwhile, will be forced to spend money fighting each other for the chance to take him on. Even if the Democratic nominee decides to forgo public financing, Bush is expected to enjoy a lopsided advantage in overall fund raising.

Herrnson says a survey of campaign donors that he conducted after the 1996 election indicates that the new, higher limits on individual contributions will benefit Republicans. He said the survey found that major Republican donors were more likely than Democrats to say that they would give the $2,000 maximum if the limits were increased.

In his written statement, Bush criticized the new law because, he claimed, it prevents individuals "from making donations to political parties in connection with federal elections." Bush had wanted to permit continued unrestricted, soft-money contributions by wealthy individuals, while outlawing them for labor and business.

The new rules do let individuals continue contributing up to $57,500 to the national parties and $37,500 to candidates over a two-year federal election cycle. Those limits will be adjusted for inflation and will rise in the future.

Historically, Republicans have raised more money than Democrats, a financial advantage that the new law might magnify.

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