Campaign Finance Reform:

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Thanks to, among other things, questions about money going from Indonesia to the Clinton campaign, it is very likely that campaign finance reform will be discussed fervently and frequently in the months ahead, regardless of who is elected President.

Many of the key proposals will be holdovers from last year. They include voluntary limits on campaign spending by candidates. They also include further restrictions on contributions by political action committees (PACs) and large donors, restricting bundling (where individuals have one person deliver their contribution checks on behalf of a group), and outlawing so-called soft money.

After Watergate, we got the current campaign finance law, described by one author as complicated enough to keep a small army of Washington lawyers perpetually employed. It gave us the soft-money loopholes for contributions to the political parties that are the object of so much criticism from today's reformers and others. It also gave us the Federal Election Commission, which can take so long to decide the legality of a financing technique that the candidates involved are dead before a decision is rendered.

I have suggested before that the only way to ensure fairer, freer elections is to abolish campaign spending limitations except for requiring full disclosure of all contributors by all candidates. The farcical results of the post-Watergate reforms should have offered enough evidence to support that idea.

Unfortunately, my suggestion has not met with unanimous approval, so we can look for more calls for campaign finance reform in the next Congress. We can also expect that whatever law is passed will include a new bunch of intentional and unintentional loopholes. As Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, told a National Journal reporter, "I'm convinced that every time Congress passes a campaign finance reform bill, within a half-hour some clever lawyer in Washington has figured out a way to get around it."

The best analogy is the Internal Revenue Code. In 1954, the code and its regulations came to 744,000 words. Today it is 5.5 million - and still growing. But few people believe it is a fairer tax code

Most of the reformers say the law needs to be changed because too much money is spent on election campaigns, and too much of that money comes from "special interests." But is either contention accurate?

Is too much money spent on election campaigns? How do we determine how much is enough? In 1994, congressional candidates raised about $740 million, making that year's campaign the most expensive ever. But is that too much - or maybe not enough? How, for example, do we measure campaign spending against auto advertising, which cost $3 billion in 1994? Or against the $4.5 billion spent on potato chips?

Incumbents would generally welcome campaign spending limits. They have lots of access to free publicity because of their incumbency, for one thing. For that matter, somebody who is well known, such as a media or entertainment personality, has a built-in advantage over any challenger for reaching potential voters. Maybe the challenger is the better candidate, but how does that message get out if campaign spending is limited? If Candice Bergen ran against Common Cause's John Gardner, with spending limited to $100,000 each, guess who wins?

And what about the charge that too much money in political campaigns comes from "special interests?" What is a "special interest?" Based on campaign rhetoric, it appears that the answer is, any individual or group who is more conservative than me. (And does calling your group a "public-interest" group make it so?) There's a certain absurd quality about, for example, a president who gets millions from plaintiffs' lawyers saying he is vetoing a tort reform law because it would benefit the "special interests," meaning businesses beset with lawsuits.

The French built the Maginot Line after World War I to protect against a German attack but the Germans used different tactics in World War II. The reformers are prepared to build a Maginot Line of campaign finance law, defending against past abuses and leaving the door wide open for new abuses in the future. For example, how will campaign finance reform anticipate the effects of new types of communication, such as the Internet, on future campaigns? Already, for example, the web sites of Senators up for re-election have been "frozen" for the 60 days prior to an election - no information may be added to or subtracted from them. What an absurdity in the Information Age.

In our imperfect world, the best protection against corruption is information. That's why full disclosure of all contributors and contributions is the best campaign finance reform - and the only one that will work.