A needed boost for lunchpail candidates


WASHINGTON -- In this era of wealthy candidates who wave their millions and scare off would-be challengers with their ready bankrolls, help for the less-endowed at last is on the way. But it's not likely to make a dent in the fat-cat candidate phenomenon of recent years.

The Federal Election Commission, by a 5-1 vote, has approved a regulation in which candidates of modest personal means, especially non-incumbents, can pay themselves salaries out of their campaign treasuries, enabling them to run without having to mortgage their homes or sell their first-born.

The rule is the creation of FEC Commissioner Michael E. Toner, a recent appointee of President Bush who ran his presidential campaign in Texas and before that was an official of the Republican National Committee. Ironically, George W. Bush, as a candidate in 1999 and 2000, drove off other Republican presidential prospects, but not so much with the unprecedented success of his fund raising.

"Too often," Mr. Toner says, "the only people running are multimillionaires. What about middle America?"

The regulation, he says, will enable blue-collar workers, schoolteachers, small businessmen and others lower on the income scale to compete with the fat-cat candidates.

Under the regulation, candidates will be able to draw from their campaign treasuries an amount equal to what they were earning in their jobs in the prior year or equal to what the job they're seeking pays.

For congressional candidates, that will be $155,000 a year; for presidential candidates, $400,000, minus whatever salary they may continue to draw in their current jobs. Presidential aspirants who take the federal subsidy provided by law by agreeing to limits on spending, however, will not be eligible to draw campaign pay.

Mr. Toner says the objective of the new regulation is to create a more level playing field, but at best it's likely only to be a mild encouragement for candidates without considerable independent means to seek the presidency or a seat in Congress. It's intended, Mr. Toner says, to enable average-income working people to campaign fulltime and still pay for family obligations and upkeep back home.

In solicited opinion on the idea before the FEC vote, only three organizations responded, all favorably -- the AFL-CIO; the Alliance for Justice, an association of environmental, civil rights and other public interest organizations; and the James Madison Center for Free Speech.

The latter group wrote: "Incumbent politicians get their salary from the federal taxpayers while running for office and the wealthy don't need a salary. However, persons of average means need an income to pay everyday living expenses."

The commission previously rejected candidate appeals to permit their campaigns to pay them salaries under existing regulations barring the use of campaign funds for "personal use."

The FEC earlier, however, did permit a campaign to pay a candidate's spouse for services performed in the campaign.

Just how campaign contributors will feel about recipient candidates pocketing some of their donations for personal use is an open question, Mr. Toner concedes. Such withdrawals from campaign treasuries must be reported on monthly campaign finance statements and could be publicized by an opponent not using the new provision against the candidate drawing a salary.

The new provision will do nothing about multimillionaires who can shovel as much of their own money as they choose into their campaigns, as did Ross Perot and Steve Forbes in recent presidential bids. Democratic candidates Jon Corzine and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Mark Dayton of Minnesota did the same thing in winning Senate seats.

As before, deep pockets can buy a candidate into a congressional or presidential race, but they can't guarantee success, as Mr. Perot and Mr. Forbes can attest.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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