Americans see nothing ignoble in riches, but we are suspicious of money used to elect or to sway politicians. This suspicion that big money taints politics slacked off somewhat with the emergence of big donors who are not beholden to big business. Rockefeller generosity to Republicans has been matched by big labor's generosity to Democrats. The liberal Committee for an Effective Congress came on the scene, followed by Common Cause. The Humphrey and McGovern lists of contributors were not lacking in millionaires. Politics today is not a game of monopoly, fixed by "special interests," which in an earlier age meant large corporate interests. New channels have opened up through which money is funneled into both parties and various candidacies, liberal and conservative, as well as into lobbying efforts for everything from environmental protection to birth control. A precise balance sheet of purchasable influence cannot be drawn up, but there are strong countervailing pressures in the political money market.
Yet the fear that the people's will is frustrated by the machinations of those who seek to buy power and prestige has persisted. One reason for that is the extraordinary inflation that has overtaken political spending. It is hard to believe that 50 years ago Sen. William Borah, the insurgent Republican, halted his own campaign in Idaho so that he could take the chairmanship of a special Senate committee investigating campaign expenditures. He did it because the country was shocked by the charge brought by Sen. La Follette of Wisconsin, who alleged that the Republicans in 1924 were seeking to secure a fund of four or five million dollars with which to influence the election! Ever since Congress and the executive branch have dallied with proposals to change the ways by which presidential. House and Senate elections are paid for. President Eisenhower tried a national mail campaign to drum up small donations. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson appointed special commissions to study the problem. It is only in the last five years, however, that congressional interest has gone from tepid to warm to hot. The more feverish interest arose, of course, out of Richard Nixon's first successful presidential campaign, which reported tapping hundreds of individuals for $10,000 or more. Several donors confessed to giving up ward of $100,000. The Nixon organization collected over $30 million that year, more than double the amount available to Hubert Humphrey. There were three basic questions for Congress to consider should the financing of political campaigns be left entirely to private benefaction; should any limits be placed on the amounts given to or received by candidates; does the public have the right to know who gave what to whom? The third question was answered first. In 1971 Congress mandated comprehensive reporting for all federal primary and general elections, and late in 1972, the public got its first real look at the realities of campaign financing. It learned that at least $55 million was raised to reelect Mr. Nixon and that some individuals gave one million dollars or more. Then through the Watergate revelations, the public was given new insight into what can be raised for a presidential campaign by refined extortion. It read of would-be ambassadors who contributed $300,000, of allegations that a large corporation promised to foot a large part of the bill for the Republican Convention in San Diego, in exchange for this or that favor.
The '71 election also revealed some flaws in the 1971 law, among them the absence of any limit on amounts contributed or spent and the lack of any effective, machinery to enforce whatever rules there were. This month Congress approved and the President signed a corrective measure. It is a compromise between those who want full public financing of all federal election campaigns and those who first want to see how federal financing works in the presidential arena before applying it across the board.
the new law works as intended, money will not be a major problem for those seeking the presidential nomination in 1976. Each would-be nominee, what ever his party, can spend only $10 million up to and through his party's convention, plus another two million dollars for fund-raising. Part of this $10 mil lion may, probably will, come out of the federal treasury. To qualify for a federal subsidy a candidate must raise $5000 (in $250 contributions or less) in 20 different states. That $100,000 will be matched by federal dollars, as will all additional donations of $250 or less, up to five million dollars. The government's Contribution will come from the one-dollar voluntary check-off on income tax returns. Any presidential hopeful can start the ball rolling by soliciting $250 contributions in 1975, but he won't get any matching federal money until January 1, 1976. The delay should mean more careful planning for the primaries and state convention delegate caucuses, and more candidates in the race all the way to the conven tion, since it will be difficult to run out of funds even if a primary or two are lost.
Money will be no problem at all in the general presidential election for the two major parties. Each will receive $20 million from the US Treasury (plus any cost of living increase that is applicable). In addition each national party organization may spend up to $2.9 million in private donations to its presidential campaign. A third or fourth party's share of this federal largesse will depend on its share of the popular vote in the general election. If it wins as much as 25 percent of that vote, it is eligible for the full $20 million. If it gets less than five percent, it is entitled to nothing.
Candidates for the Senate and House in 1976 won't have it that good. They may have a harder time than in the past, for the new law limits individual contri butions to $1000 a race. Donating organizations— corporation, union, trade association and public inter est campaign funds, which formerly gave whatever they wanted—can contribute no more than $5000 a race. In addition there's a ceiling on what candidates may spend. House members are limited to $70,000 for a primary and a similar amount for the general elec tion. Senate ceilings rise or fall according to the num ber of voters in each state, with the limit on primary expenditures set at 30 percent less than those for the general election. All congressional candidates are allowed an extra 20 percent for fund-raising, expenses, and in the general election national and state party organizations are permitted to spend an extra $10,000 for House races and more for Senate campaigns, above the amount any individual candidate may spend.
To assure that the comprehensive reporting pro cedures of the campaign fund law are observed, a Federal Elections Commission has been established. Its effectiveness will largely depend on who the commissioners are and the kind of regulations they write. The commission does not have the power to initiate criminal proceedings, but it has subpoena and civil action authority and can move immediately upon receiving a complaint that the law is being violated, even in the midst of a campaign.
Several reforms stimulated by Watergate are in the package. For instance the taking or spending by any political committee of cash in amounts above $100 is prohibited. Contributions by foreign nationals are outlawed. Candidates may set up only one principal campaign committee which, in tum, is responsible for tuming in the reports of all other political com mittees organized to support a particular candidate. This is designed to prevent the dozens of so-called independent committees from thwarting a thorough review and analysis of a candidate's receipts and expenditures. The new bill also allocates up to two million dollars to the major parties for their presi dential nominating conventions—thereby eliminating the previous practice of soliciting the help of corpora tions every four years to finance the big event.
Criticism of the new legislation is already heard. Is it constitutional to forbid someone from spending more than $1000 on a newspaper ad proclaiming that candidate X is unfit for office? Is this an infringement of free speech? Is the limit on House spending too low? In 1972, the only year for which we have statis tics, in the handful of races where an incumbent was defeated, the challenger spent more than $100,000; Sen. Edward Kennedy tried to answer this point by noting that the limit set by Congress could be as high as $114,000, an amount he termed "entirely adequate" for a primary or general election. That claim needs to be tested, for throughout this debate it has been re peatedly alleged that the new law might favor incum bents and impose a heavier burden on challengers.
A key provision of the 1971 law that required tele vision stations to charge candidates the lowest rates for the time periods they purchase has fortunately been retained. Why shouldn't the public pay less for its own political education over its own airwaves? In 1972 TV and radio accounted for $14.3 million of the total spent in the presidential race, and that excludes production costs, which were huge. The new bill sets no specific limit on the amount that may be spent for air time. We would change that. TV and radio station owners should have to give time to candidates in major federal elections, at no cost to the candidate.
The general impact of all these changes will not become evident until after the 1976 elections. There's no way of knowing now how the public will respond to having its tax dollars spent for controversial TV commercials, polling, poll watchers, rally entertain ment, or campaign "biographies." Nor can one fore tell what effect the availability of funds will have in the pre-convention period on the number of those seeking the presidential nomination. Will frivolous or "stalking horse" candidates appear in great numbers? One can predict that the next President—elected with public money—will have fewer financial obligations to big backers, and that each contributor to a con gressional race in 1976 will be known.
Private money in political campaigns is not all bad, nor is public money all good. A mixed system is promised for 1976. The workings of that system need to be studied before Congress moves further in one direction or the other.
This article originally ran in the October 26, 1974 issue of the magazine.