Should a Presidential candidate be able to collect unlimited amounts of money from undisclosed donors and spend it on things that help his candidacy? You would think the answer would be no. The campaign finance laws are supposed to limit contributions and require disclosure of all campaign funds. But the actual answer may be yes.
It may be legal because politicians who may become candidates -- may, that is, if the sun continues to rise in the East -- can set up multicandidate PACs and foundations that can collect money and spend it on things that may -- in the same sense -- turn out to be useful for their presidential campaigns. PACs are subject to the campaign finance laws, so there are limits on the amounts of donations, and the names of donors are publicly disclosed. And multicandidate PACs, such as George Bush's The Fund for America's Future, are supposed to spend money only for other candidates, not for Mr. Bush. But that may mean ferrying Mr. Bush around to various parts of the country -- New Hampshire and Iowa and Michigan, maybe -- to speak for local Republicans.
So the multicandidate PAC can be a kind of end run around spending limits, both the overall limits and the limits for each state. Some of this is trivial: who cares if a candidate spends a little over the limit in New Hampshire and a little less in Vermont? And it should be said that such Democrats as Walter Mondale used the same PAC procedure before 1984 without serious cavil. Nonetheless, it is troubling to see candidates get so close to the line.
Much more troubling is the use of foundations, as described by The Post's Thomas Edsall. Let us stipulate that Gary Hart's Center for a New Democracy, Jack Kemp's Fund for an American Renaissance, TV evangelist Pat Robertson's Freedom Council and Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt's American Horizons will produce brilliant solutions to the nation's problems. They also raise concerns about who is financing efforts obviously of great importance to men who may run for president. There is no limit on what individuals or corporations can give foundations. There is no requirement that names of contributors be disclosed, and in many cases they are not. So the public has no way of knowing to whom presidential candidates may feel grateful or indebted.
True, foundations are not free to spend money on things that are overtly political. They are regulated strictly by the Internal Revenue Service. But should an agency whose integrity ought to be above political reproach be charged with setting the boundary between permitted nonpolitical and illicit political activities? More important, should candidates be able to hide the names of big donors? The answer to the first question may have to be yes. The answer to the second should be no. The first principle of campaign finance regulation is that the public has the right to know who's giving money to a candidate. Potential candidates should disclose the names of contributors to foundations, as they do to their campaign committees and PACs. Otherwise, their opponents have the right to ask who is picking up the tab.