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WALTER MEARS: Campaigns still wallowing in cash despite reforms

June 17, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Driven by Watergate, the most sweeping campaign reforms ever enacted were supposed to dam the tide of money and expose abuses before they became scandals. But limits were swept away, rules eroded and loopholes began opening before the next election.

So on today’s 25th anniversary of the political burglary that began it all, campaigns are still wallowing in cash. Those that aren’t are likely losers.

The 1974 law designed to have changed that by limiting campaign spending was overturned by the Supreme Court and never applied to an election. That 1976 decision is under challenge: Spending limits reversed in the courts are being appealed in two Ohio cases to put the issue before the Supreme Court again.

That same law created the system of public financing of presidential campaigns and conventions that still is in operation, theoretically limiting White House candidates to their public funds if they accept subsidies, $72 million apiece in 1996.

But the ceiling has become fiction, largely because of a loophole created when political parties were allowed to raise unrestricted ``soft money″ funds, supposedly for voter education and party building, not candidates. Crossing that line was simpler than finding it, since political parties exist to promote their candidates. For 1996, the parties raised $262 million that way, triple the amount four years earlier.

One feature that does stand is the $1,000-per-election limit on contributions to candidates by individuals, an antique after more than two decades of inflation and an invitation to find other money routes.

Political action committees, which allow interest groups to give a candidate $5,000 an election, were a product of the Watergate reforms, and latter-day reformers have been trying for years to curb or eliminate them.

The Federal Election Commission, which oversees federal campaign spending, was created by the Watergate-era law, but it never had much clout and doesn’t now. Its budget is tight, its rulings on improper funding usually date back a campaign or longer, and its penalties are meaningless, an average of $8,000, small change in most campaign treasuries.

Ironically, the money side of the scandal that forced Richard Nixon from the White House began with a 1972 effort to avoid disclosing his donors, by raking it in before an April 7 deadline set by a law Nixon signed. He said all the right things, then his campaign put on the squeeze to take in $10.1 million before the deadline, donors anonymous.

The sequential $100 bills found on one of the Watergate burglars were traced to those donations. The ``smoking gun″ tape recording that was Nixon’s final undoing showed that he knew 1972 campaign funds were used in the burglary and in the cover-up afterward.

Nixon resigned before the 1974 reform law passed. ``The times demand this legislation,″ President Ford said in signing it.

It included a 20-cent-a-voter limit on Senate campaign spending, and a House ceiling of less than $100,000. In the 1996 campaign, 76 House candidates reported spending over $1 million apiece.

In blocking the spending limits, the Supreme Court ruled them an unconstitutional breach of free speech. But not the ceiling on contributions, which stands.

There have been periodic, futile attempts to amend the Constitution to permit campaign spending limits, one in the Senate earlier this year.

Without that, or a Supreme Court reversal, limits are out. The only way around the ruling is to restrict spending by offering incentives; Democrats have long tried to get public financing of congressional campaigns. Candidates who took the federal money would have to abide by the legal limits. But that is not going to happen.

The alternative, in the current campaign reform proposal President Clinton favors, is to offer cut-rate TV ads and postage rates to candidates who agree to limit their spending. That bill also would ban the soft-money donations the political parties can raise without restrictions, and cut in half the limit on contributions by political action committees.

But Republicans aren’t interested, and they run Congress.

And despite Democratic demands for reform, politicians are in it to win, and that motive usually overrides others.

As in the renewed Democratic drive for more of the soft-money donations Clinton says should be banned by the Federal Election Commission and Congress.

The explanation is the standard one when reform advocates get back to political business _ they’re not going to surrender unilaterally in the next campaign.

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EDITOR’S NOTE _ Walter R. Mears, vice president and columnist for The Associated Press, has reported on Washington and national politics for more than 30 years.

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