The jostling and shoving in the 1988 Republican presidential race goes on -- in Michigan and Iowa and New Hampshire, where the first contests are scheduled, and in the sparkling new headquarters of the Federal Election Commission. The issue before the FEC is this: does spending by George Bush's PAC, the Fund for America's Future, to elect precinct delegates in Michigan this summer constitute spending in the presidential race?
The issue is important because Mr. Bush is not the only presidential candidate using a purportedly nonpresidential PAC to do things that will further a presidential candidacy. Using PACs this way has certain advantages: they can raise up to $5,000 from individuals, compared with the $1,000 limit on contributions to presidential campaigns; their spending is not subject to the $22 million national limit for 1988 or the state limits, which cut to the quick in a small state such as New Hampshire; they enable a potential candidate to raise money from people who do not have to commit themselves to endorsing him. FFAF and its counterparts have become ways to funnel more money into what amounts to presidential campaigning.
In all this you will see winks, nods, and nudges -- or call it hypocrisy. Mr. Bush, in order to do things to help his presidential candidacy, asks the FEC for an advisory opinion allowing him to do things that, he says, won't have anything to do with his presidential candidacy. FFAF is raising $4 million to "support Republican party activities and Republican candidates," but only 10 percent of its money is contributed to them. FFAF has chosen -- just coincidentally, you understand -- to pay for full-time staffers in Michigan and New Hampshire.
To most of this the FEC has said okay. The one uncertain issue is whether spending money encouraging Michigan Republicans to run as precinct delegates and supporting their campaigns is presidential campaigning. The counsel's opinion says it was, but at least three and maybe four or five of the six commissioners disagree. Yet the precinct delegates elected in Michigan's primary this August will choose the state and therefore the national convention delegates in 1988, and will be the only 11,000 voters entitled to participate in that process in a state of 9 million people.
By itself, a decision allowing PAC spending on Michigan precinct delegates, even if wrong, doesn't seem an outrage. After all, almost everything a politician does is designed to be politically beneficial in some way or other sooner or later, and this would just be beneficial in a very specific way sooner. But note carefully what it does to the process. If the FEC follows what appear to be its inclinations, it will be making clear that it has opened an important loophole, allowing would-be presidential candidates to raise and spend significantly more money than is contemplated under the current law.