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Gore Plan Is Met With Skepticism

Politics: Reform proposal to pay for federal campaigns with privately funded endowment wins praise. But critics question its practicality.


WASHINGTON — Vice President Al Gore's new proposal to pay for federal campaigns with a privately funded $7.1-billion endowment won points for creativity Monday but appeared to fail the human-nature test--the basic tendency for donors to expect something in return.

Addressing a college-age crowd at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Gore outlined his idea to use interest from the endowment to fund House and Senate elections beginning in 2008. The money would be divided among the candidates of all political parties who agree not to accept any other sources of funding.

Corporations and individuals would fund the endowment over a seven-year period with 100% tax-deductible contributions. With his proposal, Gore sharpened his attempt to take up the reform mantle held by GOP Sen. John McCain and former Democratic challenger Bill Bradley. But the nuts and bolts of the plan elicited criticism from Gore's likely opponent and raised questions with veteran proponents of campaign finance reform.

Chief among them: Why would anyone give to such a fund?

"The untested issue is the behavioral assumption," said Charles E.M. Kolb, president of the Committee for Economic Development, a group of 240 business leaders that has proposed its own comprehensive reform plan. "How easy is it going to be to raise the seven-plus billion, particularly if donations were given on an anonymous basis?"

Many political contributors want their support for a particular candidate, party or policy position to be recognized and hope their donations will increase their influence with elected officials. Political contributions are not tax-deductible.

"I'm not sure you can raise $7.1 billion out of the same spirit that makes people show up every Thursday night for a League of Women Voters meeting," said Larry Makinson, director of the Washington-based nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which studies contributions to politicians and political parties.

But Gore spokeswoman Kathleen Begala predicted such an endowment would attract contributors.

"The reason you would give is because you want to change the system," Begala said. "This gives everyone the opportunity to participate in a fund that would fundamentally change the system."

Under Gore's plan, if the endowment failed to raise the full $7.1 billion, broadcasters would be required to provide free television and radio time to candidates.

Vic Fazio, a former California congressman who distinguished himself raising money for Democrats, said it is too early to assume that Gore's plan is unworkable.

"I think you would find in some individuals and in some corporations there would be a willingness to contribute," said Fazio, now a lobbyist at the Washington firm of Clark & Weinstock.

Fazio added that he was unsure if billions of dollars could be raised. A key issue, he said, would be how aggressively the plan was promoted.

But presumptive GOP nominee George W. Bush attacked the philosophy of Gore's proposal, calling it "a taxpayer-financed government takeover of campaigns."

Indeed, Gore's proposal, like all campaign reform measures, likely would face formidable opposition from the GOP.

The Texas governor also attacked Gore's credibility on the reform issue.

"Unless the vice president stops withholding information about his own fund-raising excesses, the American people will question his commitment to reforming the fund-raising practices of others," Bush said. Bush's campaign reform proposal would ban huge, largely unregulated contributions to the political parties from corporations and unions, but not from individuals.

Despite questions about whether the endowment could be funded, reform advocates expressed hope that Gore's emphasis on changing the campaign finance system will add new momentum to an old battle.

In his address, Gore also pledged that if elected he would send to Congress a wide-ranging campaign finance reform plan authored by Sens. McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), which would ban the use of unregulated donations.

"If you actually had an all-out presidential effort that made full use of all the powers of the office, that could make the difference in enacting reform," said Fred Wertheimer, a veteran advocate of campaign finance reform and director of Democracy 21, a Washington-based public policy organization.

Gore conceded that he is an "imperfect messenger" for campaign finance reform, tacitly acknowledging his own role in the fund-raising scandals of the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign. "But the real wounds will be to our democracy unless we address this problem," he said.

"And make no mistake, this cancer on our democracy is growing," Gore said, predicting that spending levels--and contributions from special interests--would continue to rise.

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