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Campaign finance reform could fix the system

If Congress is serious about change _ if it is serious about reforming a discredited electoral system _ it must support a strong and effective plan to reform campaign financing. The campaign finance reform plan proposed by President Clinton fits the bill and should be passed in Congress.

Our legislators cannot serve the public interest while beholden to special interests. If we are going to build a better health care system, reduce the deficit and protect our environment, the day-to-day influence of special interests on our legislators must be curbed. Congress must put the American people before big-money contributors.

If any candidates you supported happened to be running against incumbents in 1992, chances are they were doomed from the start. Not because they weren't qualified; they probably just didn't have enough cash. Overall campaign spending by general election candidates jumped to $504-million in 1992. That's nearly $113-million more than in 1990. Thanks to million-dollar coffers, a surprising 93 percent of all House incumbents who sought re-election in 1992 retained their seats. In the majority of U.S. Senate races where incumbents were re-elected in close races, the incumbent had $2.5-million more in pocket than the challenger.

The effects of skyrocketing campaign costs are clear and alarming. Qualified challengers are deterred from running, reducing competition. Legislators are forced to spend too much time fund-raising rather than serving the interests of constituents. Candidates are lured toward special-interest contributions, which have strings attached. And women and minorities, often the challengers, are frequently prevented from running competitive races due to a lack of sufficient funds. The American electoral process is not working as it should.

Partial public financing of congressional elections will help fix the system. It will return the citizens and voters to the central role in elections by telling candidates they don't have to go to the highest bidder to compete. Public financing is the cleanest money in American politics. It is financing with "no strings attached."

To pay for partial public financing, we must limit the business tax deduction available to lobbyists. Clinton's plan forces lobbyists to pay for cleaning up the system rather than placing the burden on ordinary taxpayers. We support this critical provision.

Campaign finance reform also must crack down on political action committee contributions. In 1992, PACs contributed $161-million to general election candidates, $120-million of which went directly to incumbents. In U.S. House races, incumbents raised nearly eight times more from PACs than their challengers did. Now there is no limit on the total PAC money a candidate may receive. Clinton's plan would limit PAC contributions to House candidates to 33 percent and to Senate candidates to 20 percent of total spending. The limits are essential to curbing the undue influence of special interests on our legislators.

"Soft money" is raised and spent outside the scope of federal campaign finance laws. By spending on "get-out-the-vote" and other campaign techniques for non-federal candidates (but which help federal candidates), political parties and others can circumvent federal contribution limits. Soft-money contributions must be strictly regulated and the "soft-money loophole" closed so that existing laws cannot be circumvented.

Overall spending limits for federal candidates should also be put in place. Candidates must have enough money to effectively communicate with voters, but caps must be set to reduce excessive spending and the need for special-interest contributions. Spending limits will help challengers by leveling out the playing field and making it more difficult for incumbents to outspend their opponents. Limits must be voluntary to meet constitutional requirements, but candidates will observe limits when encouraged by partial public financing.

We need to reduce the influence of special interests in campaigns. We need to ensure fair political competition. And we need to restore the public's faith in the electoral process. We need fundamental campaign finance reform to get this country's electoral process back on track.

Campaign finance reform is long overdue. We've heard some great promises from our Congress. But the time for political posturing is over. Our senators and representatives must demonstrate their good faith by voting for comprehensive reform.

Fay Law is president of the League of Women Voters _ North Pinellas County; Jean Herzig is president of LWV _ St. Petersburg area.