Behind the Headlines: Proposed Campaign Finance Reform is Unlikely to Diminish Jewish Clout

Campaign finance reform legislation now being considered in Congress is unlikely to seriously impede Jewish contributors’ ability to support pro-Israel candidates for office and consequently is not expected to diminish Jewish clout in Washington.

The proposed reforms would change the system whereby political candidates receive money, placing limits on contributions from political action committees, including the several dozen pro-Israel PACs.

The legislation also would seek to eliminate “soft money” contributions, by which well-to-do donors evade spending restrictions by contributing large amounts of money to candidates through the political parties.

The Jewish community has long been known for donating money to political candidates and causes in amounts far outweighing the percentage of Jews in the American electorate.

Much of this money has been funneled through dozens of pro-Israel PACs to sympathetic candidates, making the pro-Israel lobby a formidable force in Washington.

Under reforms proposed by President Clinton earlier this month, the maximum PAC contribution to a Senate candidate would be cut from $5,000 to $2,500. And only 20 percent of a Senate candidate’s contributions could come from PACs.

Candidates for the House of Representatives could receive one-third of their donations from PACs.

In addition, candidates would be asked to adopt voluntary spending limits. Those adhering to the limits would receive vouchers to pay for such expenses as television commercials and postage.

Campaign finance reform became a hot issue in last year’s election campaign, with presidential candidate Ross Perot regularly decrying the influence of lobbyists and the special privileges enjoyed by incumbents in Congress.

MAY NEVER PASS CONGRESS

But Jewish supporters of campaign finance reform say the Clinton plan is quite moderate and would change little about the way Jewish PACs and individual contributors operate.

They point out that the Clinton plan and alternative plans floating around Capitol Hill do not bar PACs entirely.

They also say that Jewish clout in Washington has as much to do with effective grass-roots lobbying as it does with raising money. Jewish groups regularly encourage their members to lobby their senators and representatives on issues of Jewish concern.

Not everyone in Washington is supportive of Clinton’s plan, which is currently being debated on the Hill.

In Congress, campaign finance reform is a “contentious, difficult issue,” said Stuart Eizenstat, a Washington attorney who served in the Carter administration and is active in Jewish causes.

Members of Congress “can’t be too dissatisfied with a system that got them there,” Eizenstat said.

There is talk of a Republican filibuster to block reform legislation in the Senate. The Republicans are also expected to produce their own version of a campaign finance reform bill.

Eizenstat believes a campaign finance bill will ultimately be passed this year, but that some of Clinton’s provisions may be watered down as the bill makes its way through Congress.

Last year, a campaign finance bill passed, but was vetoed by then-President Bush.

But some skeptics fear Clinton’s finance reform plan will meet the same inglorious fate as his economic stimulus package, which basically died in Congress.

“You can call me a cynic,” said one Capitol Hill aide who has been closely following the issue, “but most of these efforts at campaign finance reform” will probably result in “less than is talked about right now.”

Campaign finance reform has not been an issue on which many Jewish groups have taken a vocal position.

One exception, however, is the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which has taken a prominent role in pushing for reform.

“The Jewish community has an important stake in clean, effective government,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, the center’s director.

Saperstein, who supports Clinton’s proposals, played down any concerns about the reforms hurting the candidates and issues supported by many Jewish voters.

“Jews give money disproportionately to political causes,” Saperstein said, “and will continue to do so, no matter what the system is. I am confident that the Jewish community will continue to make its opinions felt.”

‘ONLY BENEFICIAL RESULTS’ FOR JEWS

Saperstein acknowledged that the reforms “will have some impact” on the way Jews give money, but he said that would simply mean that the Jewish community would have to “work harder to accomplish what was relatively easy under the old system.”

David Cohen, co-director of an organization called the Advocacy Institute that teaches public interest groups about the U.S. political system, sees “only beneficial results for the American Jewish community” from the proposed reforms.

Cohen, a strong supporter of campaign finance reform, said Clinton’s proposal “legitimizes a place for organized group giving,” balancing it with other forms of campaign donations.

Overall, many in the Jewish community are taking a wait-and-see approach, as they continue to study the Clinton plan in the coming weeks.

The National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council is “generally supportive” of most of the provisions in Clinton’s plan, said Jerome Chanes, co-director for domestic concerns.

In general, the proposed reforms “won’t have that much of an effect” on the Jewish community, he said.

Some say that unless the country moves toward complete public financing of campaigns, there is no way to stop individuals from contributing, and therefore Jews can continue to give money to their favorite candidates.

“I can’t believe there will be a system that will not have contributions by individuals,” said Morris Amitay, treasurer of the Washington PAC. “The Jewish community will continue to do well.”

Washington insiders are confident that contributions will always be a part of American politics. As one Capitol Hill aide put it: “Money is like water: It will find a way to get there.”

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