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Competitive Elections Cited in Largess

Donations: Defenders of current system say those seeking fund-raising reforms are distorting the issue.

September 23, 1997|Ralph Vartabedian

WASHINGTON — In the two years before the most recent federal elections, $2 billion flowed into politicians' war chests, minuscule within the $6.5-trillion U.S. economy and yet far more than had ever been collected by politicians before.

Much of that $2 billion came from special interests, and critics charge that the money threatens the integrity of the election system. "Good people can't run for office," said Ellen Miller, who heads the reform advocacy group Public Campaign. "Lawmakers spend too much time collecting money."

The reform movement has come to include conservatives and liberals, members of Congress and business executives, all arguing that new limits are needed on how politicians can raise money, if not on how much money they can raise.

But the current system has many defenders who say the reformers are grossly distorting what is happening. By some measures, the defenders point out, corporations spend far less on politics than they could.

The political contributions of the nation's largest 544 corporations--$102.4 million in 1995 and 1996--represent 0.001% of their combined revenue and less than 0.02% of their combined profits, a Times study found.

If major U.S. corporations truly opened the financial spigot, they could fairly easily pump $5 billion into the political system each two-year election cycle. Even that would represent less than 1% of net profits.

Corporations also put a far higher priority on charity than on politics, The Times study shows. Corporations give about $8 billion annually to charity. The 544 firms are estimated to account for $4.7 billion of that amount, based on an analysis of data provided by the Conference Board, a business organization that annually surveys charitable giving by corporations. In 1995 and 1996, these corporations gave $9.4 billion to charity, or 92 times more than the $102.4 million they gave to federal elections.

Political contributions from all sources are rising not because special-interest groups are conspiring to control the system but because more congressional districts are becoming competitive with the retirement of many of Congress' most senior members, says Steve Stockmeyer, senior legislative consultant to the National Assn. of Business Political Action Committees.

"Back in the 1970s and 1980s, it would be stretching it to say there were 50 or 60 competitive seats," Stockmeyer said. "Now, you have 150 or 160 seats in play. And those are the races where the money focuses on."


More competitive races and fewer lifetime members of Congress should make Congress more responsive to the public, Stockmeyer says, and higher election costs may simply be an inevitable side effect.

And if major corporations are spending more money on elections, that simply reflects the fact that they have more at stake than ever before, says John R. Lott, a law professor and political-spending expert at the University of Chicago.

Lott's research shows that the increase in federal laws, programs and regulations accounts for about 80% of the increases in political spending. "As government has more favors to grant," Lott said, "the resources spent in trying to obtain those favors should increase."

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