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    Money Talks

    Let The Ad-Wars Begin

    By Dwight L. Morris
    July 1, 1996

    For those anxiously awaiting the day when campaign finance reform becomes a reality I have two words: forget it. By ruling last Wednesday that political parties can spend as much as they want on House and Senate races as long as they don't coordinate their spending with the candidates involved, the Supreme sounded the death knell for campaign reform.

    The flood gates are open, and the parties won't waste any time in pouring additional money into the most hotly contested political arenas. For those who think that the parties won't coordinate that new spending with candidates, I also have two words: you're dreaming.

    So-called "independent campaign" expenditures, which the court had previously ruled fall under the rubric of constitutionally protected free speech, are nothing new. Special interest groups have been using them for years to support candidates of their choice.

    In 1992, the National Rifle Association (NRA) invested $3,021,715 in independent campaigns, roughly twice the $1,738,446 its political action committee donated to all federal candidates. While the NRA's PAC, like all PACs, could donate no more than $10,000 to any single candidate, the organization poured $226,088 into an unsuccessful independent campaign aimed at ousting the late Rep. Mike Synar.

    While the NRA donated just $8,900 to Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's successful bid for re-election in 1992, it pumped $172,011 into an independent campaign on his behalf-$81,219 on pre-primary mailings to its members urging them to vote for Specter and $84,558 on a second mailing prior to the general election contest with Democrat Lynn Yeakel. That total was more than 17 times what the NRA's PAC could legally donate to Specter

    In a newly drawn district designed to maximize the chances of electing a new Hispanic member from Texas, Gene Green, who is white, emerged with the Democratic nomination after three rounds of caustic campaigning against Houston City Council member Ben Reyes in February 1992. Green pulled off the victory by sinking $124,441 into television and radio commercials and $298,572 into preprimary mailings reminding voters that Reyes had been delinquent in paying his property taxes, had been arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol, and had been placed on probation after pleading no contest to misdemeanor charges of theft and violating campaign finance laws.

    Green's cause was certainly not damaged by the NRA's willingness to spend $157,926 on an independent campaign, including $41,411 for radio commercials and $11,647 for a phonebanking operation. While the NRA supposedly did not coordinate its efforts with the Green camp, letters mailed to voters by the NRA echoed Green's messages.

    More than one-third of the NRA's total outlays for independent campaigns – $1,272,844-was spent on just ten campaigns.

    That same year, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) invested $1,536,067 in its independent efforts-roughly half the $2,950,138 it gave directly to all federal candidates. The organization put $852,926 into just five campaigns, which was 85 times as much as it could have directly contributed to those five candidates. In the single most expensive independent effort waged during the 1992 campaign, the NAR poured $329,289 into Democratic Rep. Les AuCoin's unsuccessful challenge to then-Sen. Bob Packwood.

    The American Medical Association, the National Right To Life Committee, the AFL-CIO, and the National Abortion Rights Action League spent $1,024,210, $808,311, $743,215, and $719,561, respectively, on their 1992 independent campaign operations.

    Independent campaign expenditures dropped by roughly 50 percent in 1994. Virtually all of the drop was accounted for by the lack of a presidential race. With the exception of the American Medical Association, which spent nothing on such activities, the major players remained the same.

    While the NRA's independent campaign outlays dropped to $1,519,349, the organization spent $181,200 on an effort in support of Republican Bill Frist, who knocked off Tennessee Democratic Sen. Jim Sasser. The NRA spent an identical amount in support of Tennessee Republican Fred Thompson, who won his Senate seat by defeating Rep. Jim Cooper. In capturing the open Senate seat in Oklahoma, James Inhoffe benefited from the NRA's $155,264 independent campaign. The organization also threw $125,320 into the Nebraska Senate race in hopes of unseating Democrat Bob Kerrey and another $144,801into the New Mexico Senate race in a failed attempt to oust Jeff Bingaman.

    The National Right To Life Committee, the AFL-CIO, and the National Association of Realtors waged independent campaigns totaling $904,342, $317,454, and $282,255, respectively. Spurred into action by the debate over Social Security, the United Seniors PAC spent $416,746 on its independent efforts.

    Free to Join the Charade
    Prior to last Wednesday's decision, each party's state and federal committees would have been limited in 1996 to a combined $61,820 in coordinated expenditures in any given House district. Now, they will be free to join this independent campaign charade.

    In 1994, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), Democratic National Committee (DNC), National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and the Republican National Committee (RNC) combined to spend $39,964,835 on coordinated campaign efforts in support of House and Senate candidates. That figure was set to automatically rise due to a built in "cost-of-living" adjustment in the formulas that predetermine party spending levels in each House and Senate race. After Wednesday's decision, party spending is likely to explode – if not this year because of the limited fund-raising time left, then in two years.

    Had they been able to do so, there is no doubt that the NRCC and the RNC would have spent well in excess of the $58,030 they put into George Nethercutt's 1994 victory over then-speaker Thomas S. Foley. On the Senate side-where spending limits are based on voting-age population-the Democrats undoubtedly would have spent more than the $2.6 million they invested in holding Dianne Feinstein's seat – which she almost lost to free-spending millionaire Michael Huffington.

    While money may be tight, the national party committees do not need to spend freely in every district, since most districts have been gerrymandered to produce one-party dominance. However, in swing districts where additional money may spell the difference between victory and defeat, no expense will be spared.

    And the Supreme Court's decision does not even deal with the presidential campaign, where each of the two major parties is supposedly limited to spending roughly $12 million in support of its nominee but in actuality will spend another $20 million or more prior to this summer's conventions on what party elders refer to as "issue advocacy campaigns." While such voter education efforts are not supposed to contain pitches for a particular candidate, both the DNC and the RNC routinely ignore that inconvenient mandate.

    Recently, the RNC spent $3 million to air commercials in California, Michigan , Illinois and Ohio extolling Bob Dole and attacking Bill Clinton. One 60-second spot, described as a "bio-values" ad, noted that Dole believes in "the principle of work to replace welfare." Much of the ad dealt with Dole's combat wounds during World War II and his struggle to recover. To avoid having the cost of the ads counted against its $12 million limit, the RNC made sure the ad concluded with the innocuous entreaty, "call your elected officials." What one was supposed to tell them was never made clear. Another RNC-funded ad attacked Clinton for not balancing the federal budget.

    Proving that the debate over campaign reform is not about "good guys" and "bad guys, the DNC has spent more than $20 million since last August on pro-Clinton ads. Since these are "party building," "voter education" efforts there is every reason to believe that soft-money is being used to fund them. If the parties haven't yet thought of that obvious loophole in the law, which will make a mockery of the post-Watergate reforms, they soon will.

    The now-famous New Hampshire promise by Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is on record stating that too little money is spent on politics, becomes more laughable with each passing day.

    This article originally appeared on the PoliticsNow Web site.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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