The political money game cuts the link between candidate and party


WASHINGTON -- The snows have come since the famous summertime handshake between President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich in New Hampshire that was supposed to seal a deal on campaign-finance reform. But it hasn't happened and isn't likely to for some time.

The president took the first step by creating an informal, nonpartisan panel of historians to explore ways to get the ball rolling, and issuing an invitation to the speaker to join. Mr. Gingrich dithered until recently, when he employed the traditional stalling tactic of calling for a study commission -- of an issue that has already been studied to death. At the same time, he told the House Oversight Committee holding hearings on campaign-finance reform that the problem isn't too much money in political campaigns, but not enough.

It shouldn't come as any great surprise that the speaker would take this position, inasmuch as he has become a champion in fund-raising through political-action committees (PACs) that have helped to fuel his "revolution." The critical question is not simply how much money needs to be funneled into the political process to make it most effective, but how and by whom it is funneled.

The committee, chaired by Republican Rep. Bill Thomas of California, turned its spotlight the other day on the role of the political parties in campaign finance. He deplored the diminution of their influence as a consequence of the post-Watergate reforms that contributed, among other things, to the growth of special-interest PACs. Mr. Thomas noted a recent voter survey in which 49 percent of the respondents said they believed lobbyists and special interests controlled Washington, with the mushrooming of PACs.

A parade of witnesses, starting with the two major-party national chairmen, Republican Haley Barbour and Democrat Don Fowler, made the case for strengthening the parties by putting more money into their hands. The bottom line of their argument was that parties have had less influence in the process, because direct candidate access to voters via television, bought largely with special-interest PAC money, limits accountability and responsibility.

Parties take the hit

"We've replaced foot power with television," said Rep. Vic Fazio of California, the ranking Democrat on the committee.

Mr. Fowler agreed: "We've allowed the political parties to take the hit for what's wrong," he said. "Television shifted campaigning to a business of wholesale, mass communications in which each candidate is required to formulate her own message . . . so we have seen candidates increasingly forced to act as individual entrepreneurs, less and less connected to the parties," he said.

Mr. Fowler, recalling earlier days, observed that "because the parties provided most of the resources their candidates needed to get elected and re-elected, candidates were directly dependent on parties, and once in office, felt obligated to the party leadership in the Congress and legislative bodies. The result was a linkage between the people, the party and elected officials that has been sorely lacking in recent years."

Mr. Barbour, also calling for strengthening the party role, argued strenuously against any legislative action that would restrict the national party's ability to collect and disburse "soft money" -- funds contributed for local and state party-building and elections not subject to federal limitations. To do so, he said, would only increase the influence of special-interest money and inhibit national party influence and cohesion.

There appears to be general agreement between Messrs. Fowler and Barbour that the current $1,000 limit on what an individual can give to a federal candidate and the $20,000 limit to a national party, set in 1974, should be raised to account for inflation and reduce candidates' dependence on PAC money. But these increases alone will have little impact on increasing the role of the parties unless the PAC money itself is significantly harnessed or banned.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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