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Financing of Campaign '96: One More Cause for Reform

Once again the current system's injustice is made obvious

November 13, 1996

Before political self-interest once again succeeds in neutering or killing what was supposedly an unstoppable preelection consensus in favor of reforming campaign finance laws, we should fix in mind a few numbers that help to explain how our electoral process has spun wildly out of control under existing loophole-ridden political spending rules.

Common Cause, the citizens watchdog group, estimates that an almost unimaginable $2 billion was spent on this year's elections for the White House and Congress, with the race for the presidency alone consuming around $800 million.

As is almost always the case, congressional incumbents enjoyed an enormous advantage over their opponents both in fund-raising and, by no coincidence, in electability. With a few races still to be decided, it appears that 95% of incumbents won on Nov. 5.

Through mid-October, the most recent reporting period, House incumbents had raised $282 million in campaign money against just $75 million for their challengers, with political action committees (PACs) contributing more than six times as much to the incumbents as to their opponents. Incumbent senators raised more than twice as much as their challengers, including $5 in PAC money for every $1 that PACs gave the challengers.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich had collected a staggering $4.5 million by mid-October in an effort to retain his Atlanta-area seat, twice what his Democratic opponent raised. Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, with a lock on his Missouri district, nonetheless amassed more than $2.6 million, against $49,000 for his GOP opponent. In a similar Senate example of disequilibrium, Republican Phil Gramm collected $8.3 million through Oct. 16; Democrat Victor Morales reporting raising $417,000.

What the conclusive advantages of incumbency in raising campaign money show, of course, is that incumbents are the last people to be trusted with tightening and sanitizing the campaign financing laws. Yet, barring unexpected bipartisan agreement on an independent commission to clean up the political spending mess, that's just what the American people are likely to be stuck with. For all the talk about bipartisan cooperation to deal with a consuming threat to the independence and integrity of the political process, it begins to look as if it might take something just short of a miracle to get the White House and Congress working together in an honest effort to control the malignant influence of money--especially big money--on elections.

The near-miraculous can happen in politics but in this case, we suspect, only if the palpable disgust of voters can somehow be mobilized to insist on the changes that must be made.

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