WASHINGTON -- Ross Perot's surprise plan to start a third national party that would field a presidential candidate in 1996 is throwing the Federal Election Commission into a tizzy over questions of how the effort can be legally financed. The immediate question is whether Mr. Perot can bankroll it himself, or will be restricted by federal limits on political contributions.
The federal campaign-finance law stipulates that an individual can spend all he wants on a candidacy of his own, as Mr. Perot did in 1992, but can contribute only $1,000 to someone else. But according to Clay Mulford, Mr. Perot's son-in-law and election-law adviser, there appear to be no limits on what any individual can spend in an effort to create a new party.
Mr. Perot says he hopes to get his Independence Party off the ground by gaining access to state ballots across the country in time for the 1996 presidential election, starting in California, Ohio and Maine, whose qualifying deadlines occur before the end of this year.
In announcing his new-party plans, Mr. Perot dodged the question of how much he would contribute to its formation, indicating he would help in the start-up but that his followers in his United We Stand America organization and other voters disenchanted with the existing major parties would join in footing the bill.
Mr. Mulford says the basic distinction is whether money contributed by Mr. Perot or anyone else is only to achieve ballot access in the 50 states, or is given to influence the election outcome, the action that triggers FEC contribution limits. He argues that creating the new party obviously must come first, before such influence can be achieved, and hence money contributed for ballot access should not be limited by FEC rules.
The key issue
It is the Perot operation's intent to disclose all contributions, Mr. Mulford says, but that is not really the issue. It's whether, according to Federal Election Commission spokeswoman Sharon Snyder, money spent to put a new party on the ballot for the purpose of running a presidential nominee in 1996 is in itself an effort to influence the outcome of the election under the law.
Mr. Perot insists that he's not trying to start the new party just to run again himself. And Mr. Mulford notes that it would be much simpler for Mr. Perot, financially anyway, if he wanted to seek the presidency again just to run as an independent without a party as he did in 1992, and put as much of his personal fortune into the campaign as he wanted.
What Mr. Perot apparently decided, Mr. Mulford says, is that the threat of a third party now would apply more pressure to both parties, and the Republicans especially, to pass legislation in this waning congressional session that his movement wants. Moving now in California, Ohio and Maine, Mr. Mulford says, enables Mr. Perot to maintain the option of actually creating a nationwide third party next year if Congress fails to deliver the objectives he and his followers seek.
A threat to both parties
The early consensus seems to be that a third party would hurt the eventual Republican nominee by siphoning off voters opposed to President Clinton. For that reason, Mr. Mulford says, the Republican Party may well challenge the financing of the ballot-access effort at the Federal Election Commission or in the courts before it's over.
Jan Baran, a Washington lawyer and expert in election law who has worked for the GOP, doesn't disagree. Lawyers for both parties are going to be inspired to question the legality of the financing, he says, as a result of the political threat posed by the Perot initiative.
The Democrats could be hurt, too, he notes, by the new party's likely support of GOP congressional candidates campaigning against Mr. Clinton.
In any event, it is clear already that Mr. Perot has opened a financial can of worms with his latest approach to creating a new party. Assuming ballot access is widely achieved, where will the money come from to actually run a nationwide campaign? Mr. Perot will be able legally to give only the same $1,000 to the party's nominee that anyone else can give -- that is, unless he turns out to be its nominee himself. Wouldn't that be a surprise?
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.