1. Archive

Campaign reform doesn't attack the big problem

Published Oct. 13, 2005

In 1990, the Ford Motor Co. sold more than 3.5-million vehicles in the United States and spent $735-million on advertising _ an average of about $208 per customer. General Motors and Chrysler appear to have spent at least as much _ maybe more. I tell you this not to make some point about auto advertising but to provide the context for the debate about political campaign financing. When I asked Washington Post researcher Mark Stencel to run these numbers, I had just finished reading the five days of debate that preceded last week's Senate passage of a campaign finance bill. That bill was designed to curb what one Democrat after another called "the money chase" that now supposedly makes a misery of senators' lives.

Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., repeatedly warned that "the amount of money (needed) to run successfully for the House and the Senate has been escalating at an alarming rate. .


. Spending per voter (in Senate races) last year continued to climb, going up from the rate of $1.41 per voter spent in 1988 to $1.87 per voter in 1990. .



Even at that higher figure, it is less than 1-100th of what any of the Big Three auto companies spends on persuasion for each sale. The comparison is not irrelevant. One reason the cost of campaigns is rising is that candidates are competing, not just with each other, but with all the other products and services being marketed to the American public. Why should a society that tolerates an avalanche of product advertising choke on a relatively small amount of political persuasion?

The answer, we are told, is that senators are forced to engage in a non-stop pursuit of contributions, diverting them from their real work as legislators. Well, as Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pointed out, more than $80 of every $100 senators raise is collected in the final two years of their six-year terms. They could, with minimal risk, give themselves a vacation from fund-raising for two-thirds of their terms. If they don't, it's because they don't want to; not because they have to.

I dwell on these points to illustrate what is so maddening about the way Congress deals with campaign finance reform. The bill the Senate passed and the one the House is likely to pass in the next couple months are tailored to satisfy an agenda set largely by editorial writers and by Common Cause. The members of Congress use the camouflage provided by these well-meaning reformers to skirt the most serious problem in the way campaign funds are raised and distributed.

The Senate bill caps campaign spending and (in a move of very doubtful constitutionality) abolishes political-action committees (PACs), the convenient symbol of special-interest influence. It was passed amid knowing winks, after being loaded with other feel-good "reforms" like a purported ban on virtually all outside income.

But the bills taking shape deal unsatisfactorily with the crucial problem. That problem is the financial starvation of challengers, especially in the House but significantly in the Senate as well.

Competition _ the lifeblood of democracy _ is drying up, because challengers have been almost shut out of the fund-raising game.

The Senate bill addresses this crucial problem only indirectly. It uses voluntary spending ceilings to rein in free-spenders, who are mainly incumbents. It also offers candidates who accept spending limits partial public financing and reduced TV rates. But it distributes these goodies with fine impartiality, evenhandedly rewarding cash-starved challengers and cash-rich incumbents, with their government-paid staffs, offices and mailings, and their easy access to contributors. It does not give challengers one compensatory break.

The House bill will also likely rely on a combination of ceilings and subsidies. But on neither side of the Capitol are the Democrats prepared to do the one thing that might really help challengers _ ease the restrictions on fund-raising and spending by the political parties, the only institutions in America that have an intrinsic interest in electing non-incumbents to office.

Indeed, the Senate bill (and likely the House version as well) threaten new restrictions on state parties, limiting the contributions they can accept for coordinated registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns. These efforts are at the heart of electoral democracy, but Congress is threatening them. To call this an improvement takes a greater leap of faith than I can muster.

Washington Post Writers Group