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The Price of Campaign Reform: More Pestering

Politics: With a 'soft-money' ban, voters could expect an increase in fund-raising junk mail and phone calls.

April 02, 2001|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The campaign finance reform measure poised to pass the Senate today aims to curb something Americans often lament: the influence of big money in politics.

But it will almost certainly worsen an affliction they complain about even more: the proliferation of junk mail, dinner-time phone calls and e-mail spam from parties and candidates seeking donations.

At the core of the bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) is a ban on the unlimited "soft-money" contributions that parties collect from corporations, unions and other well-heeled donors. At the same time, the measure raises limits on direct contributions.

As a result, if the bill becomes law, every campaign and party official in the country is going to set his or her sights on the only source of funds left: the four- and five-figure checks to parties and candidates that individuals will still be able to write.

Virtually all of that money comes in response to mail or phone solicitations, meaning the most tangible consequence of campaign finance reform for millions of Americans is likely to be increased pestering.

"If people think they're getting a lot of fund-raising letters now, they ain't seen nothing," said Richard Viguerie, who pioneered direct-mail fund-raising for the Republican party in the 1970s and '80s. "I think it will just go through the roof."

The volume of mailings from party committees and federal candidates, already estimated at more than 300 million pieces a year, could double over the next decade, Viguerie and others said, as professional fund-raisers comb address lists and voter records to prospect for new donors.

For those who respond with a check, the reward is typically even more mail and calls from party and campaign workers hoping to coax donors up to the maximum contributions allowed.

Under McCain-Feingold, limits on direct contributions to candidates would double to $2,000 per election, while caps on contributions to parties would jump to $25,000 a year from the current limit of $20,000.

For many donors already overrun with solicitations, the prospect of getting more of them isn't particularly welcome.

"Ugh! We get too much of that already," said Judith Weinstein, a Beverly Hills resident who gives several thousand dollars to various Democratic causes each year. "I get so much I throw half of my mail away."

Weinstein, 74, said that every month she gets about 30 mailings--and almost as many phone calls--from Democratic campaigns, party committees and a host of other progressive organizations.

"I don't mind the mail as much as I mind the telephone calls at dinner time," she said. "That just sends me screaming."

Experts and officials from both major parties acknowledge that stepped-up direct marketing campaigns would test the public's already thin patience but say the post-reform fund-raising landscape would give them little choice.

With the Senate poised to approve the bill today, campaign finance reform could begin changing the way political money is raised as soon as this summer if the measure clears the House and is signed by President Bush.

The legislation would deprive parties of a source of funding that has grown five-fold over the last decade. Soft-money contributions to both parties totaled $488 million in the 2000 election cycle, much of it raised in six-figure chunks from wealthy individuals.

"Hard-money" receipts were still higher, totaling $717 million in the 2000 cycle. But hard money, the limited contributions to candidates and parties used for direct electioneering, comes in much smaller increments, much of it trickling in $20 at a time from donors responding to carefully crafted bulk mail pleas such as a recent mailing from the Democratic National Senatorial Committee.

"In Washington, D.C., today, the Republicans are in the driver's seat," the letter begins. Signed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the letter spends three pages describing looming threats on abortion rights and other hot-button issues. It stresses the precarious political balance of the evenly divided Senate. Finally, it comes to the point: "Here's what you can do. You can sit down right now and write the most generous check you can afford."

GOP Has Better Record of Raising Hard Money

A.B. Data, a Milwaukee-based direct marketing firm, sent out more than 7 million such letters on behalf of the committee in the last election cycle, generating about $10 million in contributions, according to Charles Pruitt, chief executive of the company.

Pruitt said the volume of mailings by the committee has risen about 40% over the last four years, and could grow even faster if McCain-Feingold becomes law. "When you take soft money out of the system," he said, "all the sources of hard money get a fresh look."

The race for hard money is expected to favor Republicans, who raised $477 million of it in the 2000 election cycle--about 75% more than the Democrats' $270 million.

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