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Politics and Money

JUST about everyone involved in American politics gives lip service to the need to get rid of, or at least put a short leash on, political action committees (PACs).

But few politicians or potential donors seem able actually to sever themselves from the system built around PACs, despite the distortion of the political process that many see in PACs.

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At this point in the political cycle, members of Congress should be concentrating most of their attention on the crucial process of learning how to deal with a new presidency, acclimating newly elected senators and representatives to the ways of Capitol Hill and the White House, and - at some point before the summer of 1996 - confronting some of the serious domestic and foreign policy challenges the nation faces.

Many are doing this. But other federal lawmakers - especially House members, who have to go back to their districts biennially for approval - are diverted by the need to consolidate their sources of support, especially money.

For more than a decade, Congress has been promising reforms that would mitigate perpetual campaigning, but no effective action has been forthcoming.

On June 18 the Senate passed a bill that aimed at greatly diminishing the role of the political action committees that in the past years have done more to distort the national political system than probably any other influence.

Members of the House of Representatives have not acted to remove or reduce the influence of PACs.

Absent PAC legislation - or perhaps in anticipation of it - members of Congress are wasting no time in pulling in contributions while they can.

If, as is generally expected, the courts find that banning PACs or similar financing mechanisms is unconstitutional, Congress is expected to try leveling the playing field by setting a relatively low ceiling for PAC contributions. The most-cited ceiling has been $1,000.

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The optional, nonpartisan $1 campaign check-off on income tax returns once seemed a partial answer. But taxpayer response has been low. Apparently, many tax preparers advise their clients against it. A $3 checkoff would be available under the proposed legislation.

It is time for more citizens to participate directly in the electoral and lawmaking processes - first by voting, of course, but by adding their voices to call for lessening the influence of special-influence mechanisms such as PACs.

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