Sens. Robert Byrd and David Boren, the new champions of reform in campaign financing, are absolutely right to be concerned about rising campaign costs, about a system that is weighted heavily against challengers and about the appearance of corruption in the political system. But they are absolutely wrong about the causes of these problems and the best solutions for them. Their opposition to political action committees is wrongheaded and futile, and their obsession with PACs draws attention away from some deeply troubling aspects of political money. Far more valuable remedies than theirs are available.
The current Byrd-Boren proposal seeks to cure the ills of campaign finance by curtailing PAC contributions and attempting to place a strict lid on spending in Senate races (by offering various incentives to candidates who accept spending limits). In this, the sponsors have failed to make the vital distinction between real corruption and pseudo corruption.
The pseudo corruption is PAC money. First, the power of PACs has been greatly exaggerated. Not only are the 4,211 PACs an extremely diverse lot that work at cross-purposes and check each other, but all PACs together provide only a third of all money raised by House candidates and just a fifth of the war chests of Senate contenders. Most of the solid academic studies of the relationship between congressional decision-making and PAC contributions have reached the same basic conclusion: PAC money usually has little influence on the legislative votes cast by congressmen. The members' party affiliations, ideological orientations and, most of all, the wishes of their constituencies are far more important in determining their votes than the PAC gifts they have received.
Moreover, a strong defense of the legitimacy of PAC and interest-group campaign activity can easily be made. Vigorously competing interests of great variety, after all, are one significant indicator of a thriving democracy. And if nothing else PACs are a useful vehicle for disclosure of the interest-group money which has always reached campaigns -- and which always will find a political outlet in a free society.
A limitation on what candidates can accept from PACs won't do any good: PAC largess, which is not going to just disappear, will flow into less accountable channels such as independent expenditure. And suppression of PACs will only result in the money's being given in less discernible ways, as illustrated by Boren himself. He virtuously refuses all PAC donations but accepts the very same kind of special-interest gift from individuals. According to a "Campaign Practices Reports" study, at least a quarter of the million-dollar war chest he raised in 1983 and 1984 came from executives and employees of the energy and banking industries -- individuals whose interests were not always easy to identify in the Federal Election Committee records. This included women related to the executive contributors but listed only as "homemaker."
The reformers' "big PAC attack," an increasingly popular campaign sport, serves as a smoke screen that obscures the real corruption, such as:
Honoraria of millions of dollars each year that go directly into the pockets of congressmen for their personal use. By contrast, campaign contributions are expended for a worthy public enterprise.
Free trips for congressmen that are often lengthy and lavish sojourns to resorts, which have sometimes included family members and are paid in full by the special interests.
A singularly seedy loophole in election law that permits the 221 current representatives who were in office on Jan. 8, 1980, to convert all remaining campaign funds to personal use after their retirement. These often-massive supplementary pensions are obtained under false pretenses for a reelection bid that never occurs.
Phony fund raising by many independent political groups and committees that rivals PTL's. This fraud, perpetrated mainly by direct mail, raises money by means of extravagant, never-fulfilled promises to contribute to certain causes and candidates dear to the hearts of naive donors on targeted lists.
A constructive agenda of campaign changes would highlight the real scandals, not PACs. Reformers should be spending their energies demanding the abolition of honoraria (perhaps in exchange for salary increases), severe limits on junketing when interest groups pick up the tab, repeal of the congressional "golden parachute" clause, mandatory disclosure of all direct-mail solicitations for groups that file with the FEC, and full disclosure in each solicitation of the proportion of the organization's funds spent on administrative costs (just as charities must do in many states).
Additional reforms are needed to tackle the authentic deficiencies identified by Byrd and Boren. Campaign outlays are in fact staggeringly high, but a limitation on the total amount candidates can spend would reduce competition by hurting some challengers in key marginal races where the incumbent is threatened. (We often forget that a challenger must somehow compensate for the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of dollars the incumbent has already spent in previous elections and for taxpayer-funded constituency services.)
Instead of attempting to lower expenditures artificially, let's subtract from actual campaign costs. In most districts and states, costs can be slashed by one-third or more simply by reclaiming a few paltry advertising hours of the public's airwaves from broadcasters. The time can be apportioned in 30-second, 60-second and 5-minute slots to all major-party general election congressional candidates. In large media markets, where the crush of candidates would be too great, the parties should have the power to allocate available spots to their strongest challengers and most endangered incumbents. The broadcasters can certainly afford the lost revenue. As one television executive recently put it, "Having a license to operate a commercial TV station in this country is like receiving the government's permission to print money." And rather than wasting their outrage on PACs, reformers ought to be furious that broadcasters are lining their pockets selling our air time for the most important ritual of democracy.
Finally, we ought to be encouraging the strengthening of the political parties and the participation of more average citizens in the electoral process. One-hundred-percent tax credits for gifts up to $50 to parties and candidates are the best means. In this fashion, PACs are limited indirectly; that is, as party money and small individual gifts are proportionately expanded, PAC contributions will have even less influence than they do now. Tax credits for small gifts also produce money that will flow to starved challengers, not just well-heeled incumbents. Along with free broadcasting time, this could make our politics somewhat more competitive. And if politicians such as Byrd are really concerned about unfair incumbent advantages, they can bring under control the flagrant and expensive abuses of the free frank that currently exist. Most congressional newsletters are little more than taxpayer-subsidized reelection literature.
The reformers have done a great disservice by focusing narrowly on pseudo corruption and slap-dash remedies for both genuine and imagined ills. Not only have they diverted attention from real corruption and more useful ideas, they have also increased cynicism about politics by playing to the public's natural suspicion of any mix of money and politicians. Granted, many of my alternative proposals can be labeled political "untouchables," but so was tax reform. If the determination to cure the malady is as great as the reformers suggest, then it is not too late to engineer a set of changes that will create a more wholesome and productive electoral system, rather than another jerry-built rig of good intentions and unintended consequences. The writer is an associate professor of government at the University of Virginia.