THERE are many reasons why reducing the federal deficit has been so difficult, but one of the most deeply embedded is the cost of federal programs that benefit major campaign contributors.
The ability of special interests to secure millions, and sometimes billions, of taxpayer dollars in federal contracts, subsidies, and other spending programs relates directly to our current campaign-finance system, in which candidates must raise millions of dollars for their campaigns.
A few weeks ago, reports came out about a high-ranking member of Congress, nicknamed ''The Hammer,'' who keeps a ledger listing various industries and Washington interest groups. Those that contribute thousands of dollars to him and his colleagues get a ''friendly'' rating. Those that fail to contribute are rated ''unfriendly.''
Some of this money is clearly aimed at ensuring that dollars from the federal treasury continue to flow in the direction of certain interests. The Center for Responsive Politics recently compiled data linking campaign contributions to the congressional agenda. According to their report:
* Cattle- and sheep-ranch interests contributed more than $600,000 during the last elections while fighting to protect federal grazing-fee policies that give ranchers access to federal lands at below-market prices.
* The mining industry spent more than $1 million in 1993-94 on campaign contributions to members of Congress while trying to prevent reform of the 1872 mining law that lets them pay a few thousand dollars for lands that contain billions of dollars worth of gold, silver, and other minerals.
* Oil- and gas-company interests contributed more than $6.1 million during the last election cycle to back their hefty 1995 agenda, which included repeal of the alternative minimum tax. That change will allow profitable companies to avoid federal income taxes, costing the treasury $15 billion over the next seven years.
* Three energy companies that are the primary beneficiaries of a $50 million appropriation for the design of an advanced light- water reactor contributed nearly $700,000 through their political-action committees (PACs) during the 1993-94 election cycle.
* In the six weeks after a close House vote on funding for the B-2 bomber, defense contractor Northrop Grumman's PAC gave $50,400 to House members who voted for it.
* Sugar-industry PACs, seeking to preserve special benefits for sugar producers that cost consumers an estimated $1.4 billion each year - and cost millions of taxpayer dollars for environmental cleanup in the Florida Everglades - have given more than $1.5 million to members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees since 1979.
The results of such contributions are clear. In a year focused upon reducing federal spending and achieving a balanced budget, it is hard not to notice that the areas of the budget protected by groups that contribute heavily to campaign coffers have been virtually untouched. It is becoming clear to many of us, Democrats and Republicans alike, that our failed campaign-finance system contributes to keeping many unnecessary government subsidies flowing.
The desire to eliminate the influence that special interests have on the legislative process, including the budget, has led a bipartisan group of senators, including me, John McCain, Fred Thompson, Bob Kerrey, Paul Wellstone, Sam Nunn, and others, to introduce the first bipartisan campaign-finance reform bill in nearly a decade. Limiting both the amount of money a candidate must raise and the influence of money from special-interest groups will go a long way toward putting policy first in our budget process.
Until we pass this kind of campaign-finance reform, efforts to balance the federal budget, to clamp down on pork-barrel spending, and to end tax-loophole giveaways will be seriously undermined by the flow of campaign cash that pervades our nation's capital.