Sen. David Boren (D-Okla.) is one of a handful of national legislators who refuse to accept PAC money. That choice is one that protects him from charges that he is unduly influenced by organized interest groups that have the ability and the resources to make large campaign contributions in order to affect legislation. His colleagues, however, have not followed his example in droves: PAC spending in federal elections has gone from $12.5 million to almost $100 million in the past 10 years.
Sen. Boren wants to put strict new limits on these political contributions, and a bill he has offered toward this end is scheduled for a Senate vote today. Believing as we do that the current system is far from perfect, we have come to believe nevertheless that further limitations on campaign spending are not the answer. We no longer believe that current law, which combines the benefits of some regulation and full disclosure, can be significantly improved by further restricting political contributions.
Unions began the PACs. For a long time they mounted the only organized efforts to collect individual campaign contributions from people with common objectives and make group gifts to political candidates. The device enabled a number of small givers to have a significant impact, and it increased the group's influence with the candidate. Now, numerous organizations from anti-abortion to antipollution groups organize political giving, though business interests have far outpaced all the others; these have caused the most concern because of their skewed giving to incumbents and, in particular, to members of tax-writing committees. One former government official compared the legislators raking in this money to pigs feeding at a trough.
Sen. Boren wants to put a $100,000 cap on PAC receipts by House candidates and a similar limit -- varying according to the size of the state -- on contestants for the Senate. He would also require broadcasters to give free time to candidates to counter expenditures by independent groups opposing them, and would bar PACs from transmitting "bundles" of individual checks made out to a specific candidate. This scheme would be hard to put into practice: Would there be a race to make PAC contributions before the limit was reached? Would broadcasters be reluctant to take political ads of any kind? Wouldn't thousands of lawyer- hours be spent devising new and circuitous methods to get around the regulations?
We continue to think that disclosure is the best way to avoid corruption in campaign financing. Political contributions are reported in great detail and publicized widely. If the voter knows that a member accepts contributions from real estate and oil interests and later supports tax laws favorable to these industries, that voter can object at the polls. Because the press and Common Cause, for example, carefully monitor and report these connections, citizens have far more information than they did 15 years ago.
The prospect of the government's setting increasingly stringent limits on political spending is not in itself appealing, and this is all the more true when its benefits are apt to be so slight. The same may be said of restrictions on independent expenditures and on broadcasters' freedom. In other words, it seems to us that a complicated set of new regulations on campaign expenditures has some inherent drawbacks and won't produce a commensurate gain.
If the history of campaign spending regulation has provided any lesson it is that the politicians and their legal advisers and would-be purchasers never run out of ingenious ways to turn the new regulations to their advantage. Full disclosure and vigorous debate remain the best hope for an honest process.