THE FEDERAL Election Commission has spent most of its ineffectual history not doing what it should. Now it has taken the opposite tack and is considering doing something that it should not: keeping the U.S. subsidiaries of foreign corporations from organizing PACs.
Foreign citizens and companies are already forbidden to contribute to U.S. political campaigns. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, the leading congressional advocate, argues that extension of this ban to the U.S. subsidiaries of such companies is a necessary next step, because the current rule still "permits foreign companies to buy into our political process." In 1988 the PACs of companies with "significant foreign ownership" gave federal candidates about $2.8 million, or 5 percent of that cycle's PAC total. FEC vice chairman John Warren McGarry, who proposed the reconsideration, has made the further point that there is "built-in coercion" when a subsidiary organizes a PAC; he means that the foreign owners are pulling the strings.
But the U.S. subsidiaries of foreign corporations are made up of U.S. employees; it is they who contribute to the PACs and whose right to participate in the process in this way would be curtailed. Surely "coercion" is no more present in these foreign-connected PACs than in the purely domestic variety. If it is a disqualifying attribute in the one -- because it strips away the fig leaf of voluntary individual contributions -- why not the other? A foreign entity can also do all kinds of other things to influence the U.S. political and legislative processes: buy ads; gin up its workers, suppliers and customers; lobby; even, in the case of the Senate, which has not banned the practice, see to the paying of honoraria to members. Would the would-be purifiers of our system ban these activities too? We assume not.
In an interdependent and increasingly transnational world it is hard to draw national lines and deal with national competition and fears of the sort that lie behind this proposal. The line that is currently drawn -- no direct foreign contributions to U.S. campaigns -- is reasonable and enforceable. To take the proposed next step might be politically satisfying, but it would also be intrusive and accomplish no useful purpose.
The problem isn't foreign money that's buying U.S. politicians; it's U.S. money. That's what Congress and its election commission should move to limit.