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When Campaign Funding Reform Works Too Well

June 21, 1987|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein covers politics for the National Journal

When his big problem was debt, not sex, former Sen. Gary Hart often said his presidential campaign had so many unpaid bills because he wouldn't lower himself to accept money from pernicious political action committees (PACs).

As an explanation for his campaign's financial problems, that line belonged in the "we-slept-in-separate-boats" school of political rationalization.

Though most political activists don't realize it, PACs play almost no role in presidential politics. When presidential candidates say, as many do, that they won't take PAC money, they are practicing the kind of morality that politicians (like most of us) prefer: cheap and easy.

In the past three elections, PACs provided only 1.2%, 1.4% and 1.1%, respectively, of the funds raised by the presidential candidates, an amount so small as to be inconsequential. In this campaign, even Establishment Republicans such as Vice President George Bush and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas expect to receive only a minuscule percentage of their funds from PACs. Hart's 1984 debt of $4.7 million was almost four times as much as PACs contributed to all candidates in that election.

The virtual elimination of PACs from the presidential nomination process is one of the principal victories of the campaign finance reform law passed after Watergate. Almost since the day that law went into effect, reformers have wailed ever more loudly about the rising cost of congressional races and the candidates' growing reliance on special interests to pay the bills. Like an alcoholic recovering from a bender, many legislators came out of the last election convinced that something had to be done. And so legislation is now under consideration on the Senate floor to impose public financing and limit PAC contributions in congressional races.

But the bill ignores the most sensitive political contest of all: the presidential race. Two factors explain the omission. By and large, in the presidential race, the campaign finance reforms have worked. And what many consider the principal remaining problem--a contribution limit set too low --is not the sort of issue that attracts reformers.

Though regulations covering presidential campaign financing are complex, basic rules are simple. In the campaign finance law, Congress limited the amount candidates for the presidential nomination could spend, and the size of contributions they could receive. It barred contributions to the general-election presidential campaign and instead provided public financing for the nominees.

Those rules explain why PACs, playing such a significant role in congressional battles, stay out of the White House race. Because they can only give money to candidates in primaries, PACs are forced to select not between the parties, but among them. To most PACs, that doesn't make sense: Why should a business PAC pick Bush over Dole?

Labor bends this rule, spending heavily to rally members behind its favored candidate. In the last election, labor efforts on behalf of Walter F. Mondale amounted to an electoral jihad. University of Southern California political scientist Herbert E. Alexander, author of "Financing the 1984 Election," estimates that unions spent $10 million in the nomination process and $20 million in the general election to help Mondale. Unions are unlikely to play as great a role in this election, because labor leaders--faced with a field of unknowns--do not seem to be heading toward anointing a single candidate.

In theory, PACs can affect the presidential race through independent expenditures. But in practice they do little.

Consider the 1984 presidential campaign. Eight ideologically conservative PACs reported an impressive-sounding $16.2 million in pro-Reagan or anti-Mondale independent expenditures. The numbers were a mirage. During the presidential campaign, these groups did virtually nothing but raise money for themselves; 85% of the National Conservative Political Action Committee's pro-Reagan independent expenditures, for example, went into massive direct-mail appeals that used the presidential campaign as the hook. With conservative direct mail fund-raising still struggling, the prognosis for 1988 is for more of the same.

All this notwithstanding, special interests are heard in presidential politics. But their influence comes from the ability of groups such as unions, environmentalists, feminists, religious fundamentalists and anti-abortion activists to provide candidates with people--volunteers who make phone calls and voters who cast ballots.

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