Archive for Tuesday, March 27, 2001

Contribution limit deserves second look

March 27, 2001

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— Much has changed in America since 1974, the year that Richard Nixon was forced to resign from the presidency. Since then, we have had six other presidents, the arrival of the Internet and enough inflation to make the 1974 dollar worth about 35 cents.

This week, the Senate faces the question of whether a campaign contribution limit of $1,000 should be adjusted upward for the first time since it was written into law in 1974. Amazingly enough, there are people inside and outside Congress who would jeopardize the passage of meaningful campaign finance legislation in order to preserve that $1,000 limit.

The Senate clearly has enough votes in sight to pass the McCain-Feingold bill, whose central provision would ban unlimited "soft-money" contributions to political parties from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals. These contributions, which can run from $100,000 upward and often are extorted by persistent pressure from candidates and officeholders, are rightly seen as potential sources of political corruption.

But before McCain-Feingold comes to an up-or-down vote, senators will confront the question of lifting the $1,000 limit on individual contributions to federal candidates. That "hard money" limit applies to regulated contributions that the candidates can use to buy ads or pay for other campaign costs. Raising the hard-money limit would offset some of the revenue lost to the parties if the six-figure soft money is banned.

Common sense says and the Supreme Court has held that contribution limits are justified by the public interest in preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption. Twenty-six years ago, Congress said that contributions below $1,000 were free of that taint. Is there something magical about that figure, or could it be bumped up to $2,000 or even $3,000 in order to finance robust campaigns without forcing candidates to spend as much time organizing fund-raisers or dialing for dollars as they do in the current money chase?

Some Democrats and liberal interest groups, avowedly champions of reform, are finding creative rationalizations for opposing an increase in the hard-money contribution limit. Notable among them is Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Democratic leader, who has been warning that if the $1,000 limit is raised (or raised by an unspecified "too much") he and others would have to reconsider their support for the McCain-Feingold soft-money ban.

It may be sheer coincidence that Democrats caught up to Republicans in the past election in the volume of soft-money contributions, while Republicans actually increased their hard-money lead, collecting $447 million to the Democrats' $270 million. Republicans have more contributors, especially small donors, thanks to their well-established direct-mail solicitations, while Democrats have failed to cultivate a similar mass base.

Democrats and liberal interest groups claim that raising the $1,000 limit would benefit only a few wealthy givers. Only one-tenth of 1 percent of adult Americans made a political contribution of $1,000 in the last cycle. Of course, politics would be healthier if more Americans contributed something, but only a small minority now check their returns to divert $3 of their taxes to the presidential campaign fund which would cost them nothing.

The reality is that campaigns are going to be funded by relatively few people, but the notion that the $2,000 contributor of today is more corrupting than the $1,000 contributor of 1974 is nonsense.

The second argument is that raising the contribution limit is bad because the goal should be to reduce the amount spent on campaigns. Why? Political communication is expensive in mass-media America. Candidates are competing not only with each other, but with all the commercial products and services vying for viewers' attention with their own ads and promotions. Contributions of reasonable size that help candidates get their messages out are good for democracy, not a threat.

McCain and Feingold are seeking to negotiate what a "reasonable" increase in individual limits would be. Such an amendment would strengthen their bill, not damage it, and certainly should not provide an excuse for Daschle or other Democrats to abandon it.

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Political journalism lost a notable figure last week with the death of Rowland Evans, for many years the co-author with Robert Novak of one of the most influential columns in this country. Like his partner and many others of us, Evans had his biases, but his hallmark was the doggedness of his reporting. A patrician by birth, he brought a touch of class to his work, and he will be missed.

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