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Protecting Incumbents?

LATE last month the Senate passed a campaign-reform bill that, its supporters say, would brake the runaway costs of congressional campaigns and break the headlock of special-interest money on candidates. The bill would create voluntary spending caps on Senate and House races, together with strong incentives to stay within the ceilings. Candidates who complied with the caps would receive public funds to buy broadcast time, a 50-percent discount in airing political ads, and reduced postal rates. To those concerned that American politics has become more about money than about governance, the Senate bill looks attractive on the surface.

So why did the bill pass on a virtually straight party vote? And why has President Bush vowed to veto any campaign bill with spending caps? Are Democrats more concerned about money and ethics than Republicans?

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The party of four of the Keating Five clearly doesn't have a corner on ethics. What most separates supporters from opponents of the bill is incumbency: Democrats have a big edge.

But wouldn't spending limits help challengers, since studies show that incumbents routinely raise and spend far more money than challengers? No, according to many students of American politics: Given incumbents' name recognition, ability to command free media exposure, and such indirect public subsidies as the franking privilege, incumbents would still have a great advantage in low-cost races.

To be successful, these experts say, challengers don't have to outspend their opponents, something they rarely will be able to do. But challengers must be able to spend enough money to become recognizable, credible candidates whose message gets to the electorate. Spending caps could short-circuit that process.

There are other arguments for campaign spending limits besides the contested claim that they level the playing field. One is that caps would cut down on what many politicians complain is the unending and demeaning "money chase." And, despite demurrers from some authorities, intuition says that there simply is too much cash sloshing around in politics.

Spending caps may be part of the solution to money's unhealthy influence on politics, especially if they can be made sufficiently flexible to ease the problem of incumbency preference. But the Democrats may have a hidden agenda in their espousal of campaign spending caps; certainly many Republicans think so. The issue at least deserves a very thorough airing.

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