Congress occasionlly entangle itself in situations that make television soap operas, with their convoluted plots, look simply by comparison.
Tune in now on the drama over election campaign financing.
Democratic leaders such as Whip John Brademas (Ind.) and House Administration Committee Chairman Frank Thompson (N.J.) find themselves cast in villain roles for proposing to reduce by 70 percent (from $50,000 to $15,000) the amount that party fundraising committees can give House candidates.
Since Republicans have raised 918.5 million and Democrats only $5.6 million, Republicans are playing the role of victims of a partisan plot to cripple their comeback attempts. "Changing the rules in the middle of the game" "devious, sleazy and double dealing" are among the Republicans' outraged accusations.
But hold on, Thompson and Brademas say. We are really only correcting an injustice in the present law which, if allowed to continue, would permit special interests to buy out parties and candidates, lock, stock and barrel.
They point out that because presidential elections races are now publicly financed, special interest money has turned to House and Senate races. The point out that in 1976, special interests (corporate, labor, trade assiciation and ideological political action committee) contributed $14.7 million to House candidates. In the first 10 months of 1977, these pacs raised over $23 million. Moreover, the number of fundraising PACs has more than doubled - from 608 in 1974 to 1,261 in 1977. "We are simply trying to prevent putting House seats on the auction block," Chairman Thompson says.
Just a minute, the Republicans say. The Democrats are the ones who get the big contributions from special interests. In 1976, Democratic candidates got 66 percent ($13.6 million) of their money from special interest PACs, while Republican candidates got only 34 percent ($6.9 million). (Actually, special interests give most of their money to incumbents, and Democrats hold two-thirds of the House seats so they got two-thirds of the money.) Republicans say they get most of their contributions from "ordinary citizens" (read "through sophisticated computer mass mailings").
See, says Brademas. We're really not being partisan. We're hurting Democrats more than Republicans.
Baloney, say the Republicans. If that's true, why are you going after the parties rather than the special interests?
In fact, outside observers (read "reporters") wonder why they are doing it at all, since it jeopardizes changes to enact public financing for House races, which the House Democratic leadership has endorsed, and since Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker has promised House Minority Leader John Rhodes he'll filibuster the bill to death if it passes the House in that form.
Enter the Machiavellians.
Aides to Brademas and Thompson whisper that in fact they are cutting down on special interests.
What PACs can give parties would be cut by 33 percent (from $15,000 to $10,000) and what PACs can give candidates would be cut by 50 percent (from $5,000 to $3,500). But, they say, if that was all they had done, Republicans would spend all their time defending their business friends and the corporate PACs, which have preliferated at five times the rate of labor PACs. By also cutting contributions from parties, they have kept the Republicans so busy fighting for their party they have no time to fight for their corporate friends. A diversionary tactic, see?
In addition, they say the amount parties could contribute to candidates was never meant to be so high. The $50,000 figure reflects an expectation that public financing for House and Senate races would be enacted. Allowing the parties to contribute a large amount was meant to assure them of a role in an age of publicly financed elections.
Besides that, they say, it was never intended that the party national committees and the congressional campaign committees could raise an equal and seperate amount. Wayne Hays, the former chairman of the House Administration Committee who resighned after a sex scandal, did that because he was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee the year the bill was passed.
Finally, says Brademas, if Republicans would support public financing, they would restore some or all of the party's ability to contribute to or spend money for candidates.
"If I felt we had the votes for public financing I wouldn't have felt so strongly about this," says Brademas.
Enter the aggrieved third parties in this melodrama. Common Cause and the liberal Democratic Study Group have been working for months on passing public financing, and they are yelling foul at Brademas and Thompson on two counts.
First, they dispute the contention that the votes aren't there.A DSG analysis shows 160 Democrats and 22 Republicans for public financing, and another large bloc ofDemocrats who either have voted for public financing in the past, or are new and have never announced a position.
Then, they feel Brademas and Thompson have "poisoned the well" for picking up Republican votes, though they have a respected Republican, Barber Conable (N.Y.), co-sponsoring a public financing amendment with Democrat Tom Foley (Wash.). They want to be the ones ot preserve what the parties can give, since they feel an offer from the Democratic leadership will be rejected by the angry Republicans.
And finally, some wonder if it wasn't the leadership's intent to sabotage public financing while publicly endorsing it, as a means of protecting incumbents. Incumbents usually have no trouble raising money, while their challengers strggle to raise funds.
Will the Democratic leadership relent on cutting party contributions? Will the House buy it? Will any Republicans support public financing? Will any bill ever pass? Stay tuned for the continuing saga.