WASHINGTON – Nearly all of Maryland’s members of Congress say they want to reform the way candidates raise money for campaigns. They just don’t agree how to do it.
As Congress prepares this year to take up the contentious issue:
* Four of the 10 congressmen from Maryland say they support banning or reducing contributions from special interests, or political action committees.
* Four say they want to require full disclosure of campaign contributions.
* One, Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrest of Kennedyville, supports requiring candidates to receive money only from residents of his or her district. Another, Republican Rep. Robert Ehrlich of Timonium, supports requiring candidates to raise an “appropriate percentage” of funds within his or her district.
“Wealthy Washington-based special interests and out-of- district organizations should not be able to buy a congressional seat,” Ehrlich said.
* And three Maryland members – Republican Rep. Constance Morella of Bethesda, Democratic Rep. Ben Cardin of Baltimore and Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Baltimore – want to restrict “soft money.” Those are the unregulated donations to political parties that are funneled into generic party-building activities, such as voter registration drives.
At least seven bills are pending in Congress to reform the way federal officials raise money for campaigns, and President Clinton has already gotten behind a bipartisan proposal.
“It is a question of leading by example,” said Gilchrest, who has introduced his own reform bill.
Gilchrest said he won’t take “questionable contributions” – funds from PACs or people living outside his district – and advised other members of Congress to take the initiative and do the same.
“This is such an important issue to the American people that legislators must show that they are willing to put their jobs on the line,” he said.
Mikulski, who is among those supporting a ban on all PAC contributions, said she backs a bill sponsored by Sen. Thomas Daschle, D-S.D. In addition to banning PAC money, it would restrict soft money, donations from noncitizens living in this country, and independent expenditures – money raised by an organization not coordinated with a candidate’s campaign.
Daschle’s bill would prohibit soft money contributions to national parties. State and local parties would be permitted to use soft money in non-presidential election years only for state and local candidates. And state party committees would be allowed to maintain a separate fund for voter drives.
Cardin is among those supporting a bill sponsored by Reps. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., and Christopher Shays, R-Conn.
It, and a companion bill in the Senate, which Clinton supports, would ban PACs and the use of mass mailings by incumbents during election years.
The Meehan/Shays bill also would restrict soft money and “bundling.” Corporations sometimes collect individual donations from employees in a “bundle” and hand them over to a candidate en masse, multiplying their impact. The bill also would establish voluntary spending limits for candidates and limit contributions from noncitizens living in this country.
Reps. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, and Roscoe Bartlett, R- Frederick, are among those supporting full disclosure of campaign donations, which would ease the public’s ability to review who is giving to their candidates.
Now, for contributions of $200 or more, the Federal Election Commission requires candidates to disclose a contributor’s name, amount of donation, employer, state and address to “the best of their ability.” Most candidates give the data on paper to the FEC, creating piles of paperwork that must be organized into a database for the public to view.
The FEC has initiated a voluntary program in which candidates file the data electronically. Full disclosure would include mandatory electronic filing.
Hoyer also favors campaign spending limits and public financing of all federal campaigns. Now, only the presidential elections receive public funds.
“I agree wholeheartedly with the commonly held view that campaigning is far too costly,” said Hoyer, who said he has not chosen a reform bill to support.
Bartlett said all bills created by members of Congress give an unfair advantage to incumbents. He said he wants Congress to establish a committee of independent experts to craft a reform bill that is more fair to challengers.
Term limits for members of Congress and full disclosure of campaign contributions should be priorities, Bartlett said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, said he will not give his position on campaign finance reform until the Congressional Black Caucus takes a stance. He said campaign finance reform is not a caucus priority.
A fellow caucus member, Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Largo, said he is against eliminating PACs. Without PACs, he said, “rich, country club types” would have an unfair edge influencing a candidate over “blue-collar workers.”
Wynn said full disclosure of campaign contributions is a more important issue.
“I believe the key to democracy is an informed public,” he said. Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Baltimore agreed there is a need to reform campaign finance laws, but said he has not settled on a bill to support. -30-