WASHINGTON — President Bush, unveiling a campaign finance program intended to "free our electoral system from the grip of special interests," called Thursday for the elimination of corporate and union committees that pump millions of dollars into congressional election campaigns.
Bush also proposed measures intended to reduce the advantages of congressional incumbency, to boost the role of political parties by increasing the amounts that they can spend on congressional races and to limit free congressional mailings. And, raising what has proved to be a particularly thorny issue, the President said that he would work with Congress on developing a plan to raise House and Senate salaries.
Accent on Individual
"We need reforms that curtail the role of special interests, enhance the role of the individual and strengthen the parties," Bush said.
His plan was criticized by Democrats as one that would favor Republicans, who are in a minority in the House and Senate, by trimming the campaign advantages of incumbents. In the 1980s, 97.7% of House incumbents seeking reelection have been successful, according to the White House.
Bush acknowledged such a likely result, saying in an interview Wednesday with The Times as he looked ahead to the proposal: "Well, I have a good reason to want to lock out the status quo in terms of control of the House or control of the Senate."
The trouble the proposals, if enacted, might cause for incumbents led to predictions that they never would make it through Congress without major change or--as a senior White House official acknowledged--without a major public effort by the President to put pressure on the House and Senate.
And Michael Berman, a Democratic Party expert on campaign finance, pointed out that the proposals would not prohibit individuals from creating political action committees and using their own contributions to pay for the committees' overhead. He argued that the proposals favor candidates supported by wealthy business leaders who could more easily create such groups to circumvent a ban on corporate committees, than could union groups that also would be banned.
House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) said: "While I welcome the President's willingness to join our ongoing reform efforts, I regret that he has chosen to submit proposals that blatantly favor the Republican Party and jeopardize bipartisan efforts already under way.
Cites Soaring Costs
"I also regret that the President failed to address the overriding issue in campaign reform, namely, the skyrocketing cost of campaigns. Any real reform package must include some proposal to bring this runaway spending under control."
In addition to eliminating the political action committees run by unions, corporations and trade associations, which the White House said accounted for nearly 90% of the approximately $160 million spent by political action groups before the 1988 election, the President's program would:
--Reduce from $5,000 to $2,500 the limits on contributions by independent political action committees.
--Prohibit all organizations except political party committees from soliciting contributions from employees or members and then sending them as one contribution to a candidate, without the amount counting toward overall contribution limits.
--Increase, from approximately $46,000 to $115,000, the amount that the individual political parties can spend on House races. The sizable increase in this ceiling would be likely to favor the Republicans, who have had better luck raising funds than the Democrats.
--Prohibit the forwarding of a congressional or presidential candidate's leftover campaign funds to the next election campaign. Such funds have helped incumbents build long-running war chests. Under the proposal, the money could be handed over to the political parties, to the U.S. Treasury or returned to contributors.
Curb on Free Mailings
--Limit the use of the "franking" privilege by members of Congress so that huge quantities of newsletters and other brochures that can boost their campaigns could no longer be mailed without the cost of postage.
--Require greater public disclosure of campaign funding, in particular the contributions by individuals to "get out the vote" efforts. In the 1988 campaign, the lack of limits on such contributions allowed individuals to give thousands of dollars--in some cases $100,000--to party efforts that were devoted to individual candidates, despite a $5,000 limit on an individual's contribution to any one candidate.
In addition, the proposal called for drawing up borders of congressional districts along community boundaries, to eliminate "gerrymandering" of districts that critics say can give advantages to one party or another by creating congressional districts that encompass specific groups of voters.