It may cost $1 billion to elect 470 people to federal office in 1996: one President, one Vice-President, 33 senators, and 435 representatives. That's twice what it cost in 1992. The sums are so huge that elected officials are increasingly beholden to contributors who want political favors in exchange for cash. No wonder voters are alienated.

There are two problems: the total amount of money being spent in campaigns and the huge sums being spent by rich candidates who carpet-bomb their opponents with TV ads. Cutting out "soft money" contributions to the parties can save millions. They supposedly go for building party strength, but invariably help specific candidates. Then, apply the current Presidential campaign-finance system to congressional candidates. Right now, Presidential candidates agree to cap their spending at $37 million for their primary runs, and the taxpayer matches individual contributions up to $250. The taxpayer also picks up the tab for the convention and the national campaign.

A bill extending a form of public finance to congressional races was killed in the Senate by none other than Bob Dole, now receiving matching government funds for his primary run. Opponents decry taxpayer funding for congressional campaigns as "welfare for politicians." Our view: Public financing is better than special-interest financing.

But what about the rich candidates who spend their own fortunes? Well, actually, they don't. Some borrow money from themselves and then, if elected, go to campaign contributors and request money to pay themselves off. Limits should be placed on this practice. If people want to circumvent campaign caps, they should really pay for it themselves.

Here's a sweetener. The networks don't want to pay the government for more spectrum. Why not give them some of it in exchange for free air time for candidates? That might sharply reduce the need for fund raising in the first place.

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