Commentary: George W., The Accidental Campaign Reformer

When George W. Bush announced on July 15 that he was rejecting federal matching funds for next year's primaries, almost no one was surprised. As the Republican Presidential candidate explained, he already had raised a record $37 million--$4 million more than he would have been allowed to spend if he accepted matching dollars--and he didn't want spending caps to tie his hands while his most well-heeled GOP opponent, publisher Steve Forbes, spent freely from his huge personal bank account.

Bush's move, reformers cried, demonstrates anew that Big Money rules the U.S. election system. But the Republican front-runner did reformers a favor: He put campaign-finance reform back on the national agenda. Within days, Democratic Presidential hopeful Bill Bradley was putting the finishing touches on his own 12-point reform plan to be unveiled on July 22. Seeing an opening, Republican Presidential wannabe Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) pounced, threatening to tie up floor votes until he won a leadership pledge to schedule debate on a version of his reform bill. Even House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert promised to bring a bill to the floor after the August recess.

If Congress wants a road-map to reasonable reform it should look beyond the boggling Bush numbers and at the primary fund-raising system itself, which could be a prototype for reform. The crucial difference between the primaries and the general elections is that in the primaries, only so-called hard money is allowed: direct donations to a candidate, limited to $1,000 per election from each individual, or $5,000 from a political action committee.

True, the Texan brought in a mountain of cash under these limits by taking so-called bundling to new heights. He relied on 115 "Pioneers," super-networkers, to raise at least $100,000 apiece by tapping associates and friends. But if a candidate raises $1 million from 1,000 donors, that's far better than accepting $1 million from one corporate fat cat. Bush appears to have followed the law--accepting checks no greater than $1,000 from some 80,000 individuals. His average contribution came to $466.69. Even Common Cause acting director Donald J. Simon can't crab: "It's clean, it's from permissible sources, and it's hard money."

OUT OF REACH. In the general election, however, soft money rules and that's the source of greatest abuse. These funds are beyond the campaign laws and involve unlimited donations by individuals, corporations, and labor unions. Originally, soft money was to be spent only by political parties, ostensibly for party-building efforts. But candidates often use soft money to skirt spending limits. "Soft money is the biggest loophole in the system. It gives donors extraordinary influence," says Ellen S. Miller, executive director of pro-reform group Public Campaign. During the last Presidential cycle, soft-money spending totaled $272 million; this time it could hit $1 billion.

There is another reason to hope for reform. Eager to avoid scandal, the Presidential front-runners are being extra careful. Bush nixed the idea of using soft money to cover expenses for the Aug. 14 Iowa straw poll after he caught flack for the plan. Vice-President Al Gore is so eager to avoid any echo of the '96 Clinton-Gore campaign fund-raising scandals that his people say it's bogging down their money drive--they have to get several lawyers to sign off on solicitation letters and seating arrangements at fund-raisers.

Congress should keep the candidates' feet to the fire. While GOP hard-liners are sure to object, Bush is proving that campaigns don't need soft money to win. Congress could simply extend the primary fund-raising system to the general election, allowing candidates to continue raising hard money at $1,000 a clip. In exchange for the estimated $68 million in public funds that nominees will get after the conventions--even Bush isn't tempted to reject that huge grant--candidates and national parties should forgo soft money. That way, Congress can make sure the campaign-reform drive outlives the primaries.

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