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Jewish World Review Dec. 27, 1999/18 Teves, 5760

Larry Elder

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Campaign finance reform -- needed or needless? -- QUESTION: What is "eating away at the fabric of democracy"?

According to Democratic Presidential candidate Bill Bradley, the answer is the impact of special interest money on campaign finance.

Ditto for Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, for whom campaign finance reforms drives his crusade toward the White House. "As long as the influence of special interests dominates political campaigns," McCain said, "it will dominate legislation as well."

Most politicians would sooner endorse the clubbing of baby seals than oppose "campaign finance reform." But should we sound the alarm? Does special interest money corrupt politicians? Is McCain right when he says, "Until we abolish soft money, Americans will never have a government that works as hard for them as it does for the special interests"?

First, a query. Since McCain and Bradley suggest that special interest money corrupts, surely the money has corrupted them. Or their colleagues.

Names, please?

Not me, says Sen. Bradley. "In my case ... I've never felt any compromise or potential compromise. My contributors say they are doing it because they believe in me." Oh. So for Bradley, special interest contributions influence other, presumably less honorable, politicians. But as for him, his supporters give and he takes without any implied quid pro quo.

The libertarian think-tank CATO Institute tells us that Bradley is not unique in somehow managing to avoid corruption. In a report on campaign finance regulation, CATO's Bradley Smith says, "The primary factors in determining a legislator's votes are party affiliation, ideology, and constituent views and needs. That has been reflected in study after study over the past 20 years."

When people denounce the influence of "special interest groups" they usually mean the usual suspects -- Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Business. But "good guys" like the environmental group, Sierra Club, also contribute to politicians. So do teachers' unions. Anti-gun groups also attempt to influence politicians through political contributions. And between 1988 and 1996, anti-tort-reform-Democratic-leaning trial lawyers, according to the American Tort Reform Association, gave nearly $60 million to politicians who opposed tort reform.

Is Sen. Bradley seeking a reduction in, say, the influence of teachers' unions? The National Education Association contributes heavily to Democratic issues, even though nearly 40 percent of teachers call themselves Republicans. And nearly one in five delegates to the 1996 Democratic National Convention possessed ties to the teachers' unions.

Campaign finance reformers complain that, to get elected, politicians spend "too much money." Do they? In the two years leading up to the elections of 1994, congressional general election candidates spent nearly $600 million.

CATO's Bradley says that this comes out to three dollars per eligible voter.

And, for all local, state, and federal elections, campaign spending was as much as $2 billion, or nearly ten dollars per eligible voter. Meanwhile, this year, the federal government will spend over $1.5 trillion. Americans dropped more than that on Nikes, personal fitness trainers and lipstick.

Currently, an individual can contribute up to $1,000 per candidate per election; political action committees may spend $5,000 per candidate per election; and individuals may spend unlimited amounts of their own money on their own campaigns. Congress passed these limitations during the post-Watergate "let's get the money out of politics" frenzy. But these constraints, as always, simply induced candidates to figure out a way of raising more money. Enter the often-criticized "soft money," contributions made to political parties, with neither limits nor regulation.

Unfortunately for Sen. McCain, polls show the American people indifferent about the "need" for campaign finance reform. Are we oblivious to the "corrupting" nature of campaign contributions? No, more likely Americans understand that, in one form or another, nearly all of us are special interests. If we teach, sell real estate, belong to a union, practice law, or fly an airplane, we belong to a group, organization, or trade association established to protect the interests of its members.

Some reformers urge public funding of elections. But here the American people have spoken. We already can contribute to presidential campaigns by simply checking the box on our 1040s, allowing a contribution of one dollar.

How many Americans do so? In 1994, only 13 percent opted to contribute this way, down from nearly 30 percent in 1980. Some appetite for public financing of campaigns.

Americans know that as long as the tax code remains a Christmas tree full of goodies, perks and exemptions for those with influence, expect the money to flow. Streamline the tax code, even better, eliminate the IRS, and voila, this removes much of the incentive for campaign contributions in the first place. Just disclose who gives, and allow voters to determine whether the money bought somebody off.

So relax. While special interest money may be "eating away" at democracy, it's never taken a bite out of people like the untouchable Sens. Bradley and McCain. So why worry? Pass the collection plate.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate