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Impact of Campaign Reforms Seen in Conferees' Hands

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Washington

The House and Senate have passed wildly disparate campaign-finance-reform bills, and a representative of the nation's largest teachers' union says the impact of such reform on unions' political clout would depend on what kind of compromise is reached between them.

"We have two very different bills, and what comes out of the conference committee and is signed [by the President] could make all the difference,'' said Mickey Ibarra, the manager of political advocacy for the National Education Association.

The House passed its bill, HR 3, by a vote of 255 to 175 in the final days of the 1993 legislative session last month.

It would set voluntary spending limits of $600,000 per election cycle for House candidates seeking election after 1995. No more than one-third of the limit could come from political-action commmittees; contributions from individuals of more than $200 would also be restricted to one-third of the total.

In exchange for adhering to the limits, candidates would be entitled to receive an additional $200,000 in "voter-communication vouchers,'' to be used to buy media advertisements.

Spending limits would rise in conjunction with the consumer price index. The whole system would not go into effect until Congress provides a mechanism to fund the communication vouchers, which is not spelled out in the bill.

HR 3 would also prohibit independent expenditures by PAC's on behalf of a candidate that they have already contributed to. Such expenditures would count against a candidate's spending limit, as would so-called "soft money'' contributions by unions and others to national or state party committees.

Soft money is used for such purposes as get-out-the-vote activities, voter registration, advertising, the purchase of campaign materials, and the maintenance of voter files, and is not currently subject to spending limits or reporting requirements.

PAC Ban Proposed

In contrast, S 3, which the Senate passed last July, would ban all PAC contributions in addition to setting spending limits of $600,000 per election cycle on House campaigns and between $950,000 and $5.5 million per election cycle for Senate campaigns, depending on state size. Participants would be eligible to receive 20 percent of the spending limit as media vouchers.

S 3 includes soft-money restrictions similar to those in HR 3, but it would not expressly prohibit independent expenditures by PAC's.

While the N.E.A. dislikes sections of the House bill, Mr. Ibarra said it is preferable to S 3--which would eliminate one of the primary sources of unions' political clout.

Officials at the American Federation of Teachers were unavailable for comment.

During the 1992 election cycle, the N.E.A.'s PAC spent more than $2.34 million on Congressional campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which ranked it as the fifth-largest PAC and the second-largest union PAC. The A.F.T.'s spending of more than $1.11 million ranked it 27th overall and 16th among union PAC's.

More than 95 percent of each union's PAC spending went to Democratic candidates.

"PAC's are not bad,'' Mr. Ibarra asserted. "In fact, they are a good and healthy contribution to democracy in this country.''

"PAC's were set up for the average citizen to join together and pool resources to be on a more level playing field with businesses, industries, and wealthy individuals,'' he said.

Moreover, he said, a federal ban on PAC contributions could be unconstitutional.

"I'm not saying the N.E.A. will be lining up outside the courthouse door, but there will be a challenge,'' Mr. Ibarra said.

He said the House bill's provision to limit a candidate's aggregate PAC collections to $200,000 would likely cause the N.E.A. to rethink its funding mechanism.

"We certainly would have to rethink strategically how we'd make the contributions and the date of those,'' Mr. Ibarra said.

With a large chasm between the House and Senate bills, it is unclear what will emerge from a conference--or if anything will result.

"It's up in the air,'' said Ellen Miller, the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "It would be silly to speculate.''

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