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Outspending the Big Spender


The public financing program in effect for presidential candidates imposes spending limits on the amounts their campaigns can spend.

Once nominated at their conventions, the campaigns of Bush-Quayle and Clinton-Gore were subject to general election expenditure limits of $55.2 million each -- the same amount as the public funding supplied by federal income-tax checkoffs -- plus $10.3 million each in permitted coordinated expenditures by the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee on behalf of their presidential tickets.

Assuming both party committees will raise enough to spend up to the limit, then President Bush's and Governor Clinton's spending will each total $65.5 million. This seems like a lot, and will be compared with Ross Perot's higher personal spending. But despite the limits, in reality much more spending is already occurring.

A study of the 1988 general election campaigns of Bush-Quayle and Dukakis-Bentsen reveals substantial allied and related spending on their behalf in parallel campaigning by various sources that raise questions about the enforceability of the expenditure limits.

First, each party has 50 state committees, 3,100 or so county committees and uncounted municipal committees, which will be work registering voters, distributing absentee ballots and getting out the vote on Tuesday. Not all party committees are effective but many are, and in 1988, soft money was collected nationally and allocated to some of those party committees in the amount of $22-23 million each for such activities on behalf of the presidential tickets.

Second, labor unions undertook parallel campaigning among their members and families, worth $25 million for Dukakis-Bentsen and $5 million for Bush-Quayle. Then add in separate funds called compliance costs for the major party campaigns, at $3-4 million each, and independent expenditures on behalf of Mr. Bush ($7 million) and Mr. Dukakis ($600,000).

Thus the amounts spent by each major party presidential ticket or legally on its behalf totaled near $100 million each in 1988. More from the same sources can be expected to benefit Messrs. Bush and Clinton this year also.

Thus the expenditure limits give the illusion of limiting spending without actually doing so. The limits apply only to the immediate campaign organization of the candidates and the national party. But the additional types of spending result not from loopholes in the law, as critics and reformers would have it, but from legitimate sources. Labor-union spending and independent expenditures, for example, are constitutionally protected rights, according to U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

Soft money -- defined as that raised and spent by state and local political party committees outside the restraints of federal contributions and expenditure limits -- is permissible spending that represents a conscious effort by the Congress to empower state and local party committees in activities such as registration and getting out the vote on behalf of party tickets that include federal candidates.

Individual donors, corporations and labor unions can give soft money in unlimited amounts, often as much as $100,000 at a time; this money would be illegal if given as hard money under federal limits. It is mainly raised nationally by presidential candidate operatives who then see that the money is transferred to key electoral states the presidential strategy emphasizes. So if soft money skirts the federal contribution and expenditure limits, why allow it? Because it plays a crucial and valuable role in both voter outreach and party renewal. Clearly, party committees have a legitimate role to play in campaigns for federal office, and soft money enhances party activities that encour- age voting -- a value we all share.

Accordingly, the $100 million presidential campaign that is considered likely now that Ross Perot has become a candidate, in fact, arrived in 1988 and will be enjoyed by both the Bush-Quayle and Clinton-Gore tickets. However much Perot ends up spending, it will be more than matched by the diverse sources of funding in support of the major-party candidates.

Herbert E. Alexander teaches political science and directs the Citizens' Research Foundation at the University of Southern California.

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