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New Campaign Financing Law "gutted" You Can Still Buy Your Way Into National Office

New Campaign Financing Law "gutted" You Can Still Buy Your Way Into National Office image
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The scène is Miami Beach in August, 1968, the eve of the Republican National Convention. At a beach at 72nd and Collins, volunteers for Nelson Rockefeller are passing out free hot dogs and Cokes to hordes of sun burned tourists. When the didate and the televisión crews anive. the owd is large and ex. cited. A few sirain 10 touch feller and rip a souvenir from his ing. But most seem content to glance at Rocky over their shoulder as they push toward the mustard dispensers. Rockefeller's beach parties, while hardly on the scale of the legendary Tammany Hall food give-aways, were part of a last-ditch campaign that he and his family funded with an estimated $4.1 million from their personal change purses. The strategy could hardly have been simpler: For the price of a few thousand hot dogs and drinks, Rocky founë he could buy frenzied crowds all over town to serve as backdrops lor the televisión news coverage of liis campaign. Tluit campaign was soon dwarfed by Richarci Nixon's $70 million 1 972 buoyed by SI ,000-a-plate steak dinners- ihat financed iüch innovative campaign strategies as the Watergate burglary and cover-up. While many Democratie members of Congress had long expressed repugnance over the situation in whicli some topelective offices were going to ihe liighcst bidder (perhaps because they liad more trouble than Republicans in finding vvealthy supporters), reform legislation was finally pushed through the Watergateshocked Congress in 174. As ambiguous and compromising as the law was (Ted Kennedy called it "half a loaf"), it k would have stopped a hand ful of fat-cats or wealthy offïce-seekers from floating an entire campaign. It also would have prevented Presidential candidates from spending the amount of ey needed to launch a mass braini washing of the public, via the media. Bui in early February, rnuch of that legislation was held to be unconstitulional , by tlié conservative U.S. i Supreme Court. ine resuit .' upen wide, the caruiidate is passing by . . . The court left intact the principie that tliose candidates who proved their viability by colI lecting S5.000 in small contributions in each of 20 states should receive up to $5 million in federal matching funds for tlie primaries. And if they get a major party nomination, they still qualify for a million taxpayer-tunded war-cliest. That decisión sliould aid those candidates wlio enjoy popular support, but who lack fat-cat friends. But the court s lengthy opinión al so opened up a slew ot loopholes, nduding: Upholdiii" the DrincÏDle that dividual Presidential campaign tions be limited to SI ,000. But the Court decided that fat cats may spend as much money as they want on behalf of a candidate, as long as the candidate is unaware and does not authorize the spending. Striking down a limitation of ï30,000 that a candidate and his family can spend on a presidential campaign. The decisión was soon mocked by the announcement that Lionsowner William Clay Ford had been named as Gene McCai thy's running mate. Ford's sole qualification seemed to be his habit of writing checks tbr liberal presidential aspirants. Ford soon resigned from the ticket leaving behind mucfa speculation on how miïch money he slipped McCarthy during his short tenure as a candidate. Striking down spending limits tor congressional campaigns and presidential candidates who choose not to accept- or,to return- federal matcliing campaign funds. Thus, if a candidate thinks he can raise more than the $10 mili ion ceiling for primary election expenses, he could refuse federal payments and spend without limitation. In most cases, the law limits candidates to spending $200,000 in each primary state. But when the race nears ïts end, perhaps in the key California primary in late summer, eandidates may find it advantageous to return federal funds in order to legally mount a multi-million dollar blitz. For illustration, consider what might happen if Ted Kennedy decided to run for president. Kennedy and his wealthy family could spend unlimited amounts on his behalf. Private donors could also spend without restriction for such items as a massive televisión ad campaign- as long as Kennedy and his staffers were not directly planning the ads. Assuming that his campaign staff could gain the necessary contributions for a federal subsidy, Kennedy could receive up to $5 million in federal funds for the primaries. If he won the Democratie nomina tion, he could launch a S20 million campaign, compliments of the federal treasury. And finally, if he were willing to forego the potential S25 million subsidy, he could spend without restrietions. But Kennedy could have his take and spend it, too, if he just made sure that whatever money he spent in excess of federal law was done "indirect - ly" by supporters without his approval. The Supreme Court justified gutting the law on the basis of free speech. The Court said that making one's voice heard in a media-saturated society can be very expensive. Thus, it ruled, spending limits on indirect contributions and by candidates were an unconstitutional restraint of free speech. But, inexplicably, the court upheld the SI ,000 contribution limit on personal funds sent directly to campaign eommittees. The court said such a limitation was a necessary nieans of preventing large contributors trom exerting too niucli influence on candidates. It seems inconceivable that a candidate would not become aware that some benefactor had independently contributed perhaps SI million for televisión ads, billboards or door-todoor salesmanship. [tisasifthe court is asking candidates to become the political equivalent of the bawdy house piano player who swears he knows nothing of what goes on upstairs. „ But while the ruling won't necessarily keep the high rollers out of federal elections, it preserved some possibility for those with less lofty friends to become more viable candidates by loading their pockets with federal dollars. For third party candidates, however, Presidential politics will continue to be a rough road. Democratie and Republican nominees will automatically qualify for a S20 million general election subsidy. But third party candidates will have to scramble for federal funds. based on a formula that fluetuates in relation to the candidates' showing in the last election. The provisión was designed to prevent subsidies from flowing to dozens, or perhaps hundreds. of self-proclaimed candidates. Gene McCarthy calis it "political repression." "It's like telling people we're going to give you freedom of religión, and then saying, you have two choices: Episcopal or Anglican," McCarthy says. Alan Lenhoffis a farmer Micliigan Daily editor, now working as a report er for the Oakland Press and a freelance writer. It is as if the Supreme Court is asking candidates to become the political equivalent of the bawdy house piano player who swears he knows nothing of what goes on upstairs. Mfj.iwttaMin!j.i.uij.uijiiii,uy7yw?ffT??giiwi.io4..i.i i kwaw I i I 1 ....U.IMU.W.LJ.l.ilU,.IMi.U.uU.I