As the movement to reform the nation’s campaign finance laws gains momentum, some experts warn that changes in the system could undermine American Jews’ historic influence in Washington.
Born out of widespread discontent over the role of money in politics, the reform movement has the Jewish community conflicted about the goals of changing the campaign finance rules.
One the one hand, much of the organized Jewish community agrees that the influence of special interest groups needs to be curbed. At the same time, many of those representing Jewish and pro-Israel interests on Capitol Hill recognize that the Jewish community has long benefited from the current system, wielding influence that is disproportionate to its numbers.
For that reason, reform critics say any efforts to shackle special interests will disproportionately harm Jewish interests, potentially shutting Jews out of the legislative decision-making process.
The pro-Israel voice, resounding from the corners of 24 political action committees, remains one of the most influential in the halls of Congress. Traditionally, the pro-Israel PACs have ranked among the top contributors to congressional candidates.
Those contributions, in turn, have helped buy access on Capitol Hill, according to PAC officials.
“Everyone is competing to have his views heard,” said Morris Amitay, founder and treasurer of the pro-Israel Washington PAC. “It’s just human nature that if someone has helped you to get elected in a tangible way, and if there are three calls holding on the line, they’ll pick up your call.”
Long a back-burner issue, campaign finance reform was brought to the fore last year in New Hampshire when President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich shook hands at a joint meeting, agreeing to set up a commission to examine reform proposals. Clinton renewed the call for reform this year in his State of the Union address.
Meanwhile, two leading bills have emerged in both houses of Congress, constituting the first bipartisan reform effort in more than 10 years.
Both bills would: * set voluntary spending limits; * require candidates to raise at least 60 percent of their funds from contributors within their home state; * limit the amount of personal funds candidates may spend on their own campaigns; * ban contributions from political action committees; * increase disclosure and accountability of those who engage in political advertising; * and restrict the use of soft money – the unlimited contributions that go directly to political parties that Democrats and Republicans then dole out as a way of sidestepping legal limits on contributions to individual campaigns.
As incentive under the legislation, candidates who agree to abide by the spending limits would be allowed to purchase television and radio time at a 50 percent discount, while receiving breaks on campaign mailings. In additions, Senate candidates would receive 30 minutes of free television time.
The movement to write new campaign financing laws has been embraced by an array of prominent, albeit mismatched, political figures, including Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), former presidential candidates Ross Perot and Paul Tsongas, and Republican hopeful Pat Buchanan.
But observers say support for reform appears to be missing where it counts – within the Republican leadership.
“I do not think it will happen” this year, said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research organization that examines money and politics. “There are very powerful forces, including the speaker and many conservative Republicans, who don’t want to see it.”
Proponents of new campaign finance laws charge that many Republicans, like their Democratic predecessors, appear to be balking at reform now that more money is coming their way.
Republicans outpaced Democrats $23 million to about $12 million in overall PAC receipts during the first six months of 1995, according to the Federal Election Commission. That marks a reversal from the equivalent period in 1993, when Democrats received $20 million in PAC contributions and Republicans $11 million.
In the Jewish community, the “consensus view,” according to the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, is that Jewish interests would be well- served by campaign finance reform.
“Anything that enhances the political process in a nonpartisan way, which is what campaign finance reform does, enhances the vehicles of democratic pluralism, and logically is good for the Jewish community,” said Jerome Chanes, NJCRAC’s co-director for domestic concerns.
NJCRAC, which has backed reform measures in years past, continues to support many of the current proposals, including voluntary spending limits, public financing of congressional campaigns and limits on PAC contributions.
But NJCRAC has taken no position on banning PAC contributions outright.
Should a ban on PAC funding pass into law, the Supreme Court will ultimately have to decide whether such a ban is constitutional.
In 1976, the court upheld limitations on the size of campaign contributions, but ruled that mandatory spending limits infringed on free speech. It also struck down controls on independent candidate expenditures.
Opponents of reform maintain that the status quo is vital to Jewish interests. Access to lawmakers has always been important, they say, but the changing makeup of Congress has now made that access imperative.
Half of those now serving in Congress, they point out, have been elected during the 1990s – a number that is certain to rise with a record 48 incumbents retiring in 1996.
“More than ever, because you have such high turnover in Congress now, the whole institutional memory of the relationship between American Jewry and the Congress is dissipating,” said Chuck Brooks, executive director of National PAC, the largest pro-Israel PAC.
Although Congress as a whole continues to be supportive of Israel, Brooks said new members need to be cultivated because “there’s bound to be some sort of controversy or blow-up” in the U.S.-Israeli relationship over the next decade.
“If something does happen, like another loan guarantee issue, and if we don’t have access to congressmen and senators and can’t mobilize, we’ll be in trouble,” Brooks said, referring to the 1991 battle over $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees to Israel for the resettlement of Jews from the former Soviet Union.
Amitay of Washington PAC agrees.
“Unless you have a legislator who is well-versed in issues of concern to the Jewish community or has a long association with the community, you’re going to have people from districts with hardly any Jewish population who not only will be voting their consciences, but voting their ignorance of certain issues,” Amitay said. “That has to hurt us.”
Demographic trends may also be working against Jewish interests. An ever- increasing number of Jews are concentrating themselves in urban centers such as Boston, New York, Washington, Atlanta and Los Angeles. In electoral terms, that means the number of lawmakers representing Jewish constituents – and Jewish interests – is declining.
“Most of the (Jewish) community is asleep on this issue and doesn’t understand how their interests will be hurt because they’re not really paying attention to this long-term demographic trend of the depopulation of small town Jewish communities across the country and the concentration of Jewish numbers in a few major metropolitan areas,” one Jewish observer opposed to campaign finance reform said.
Changing Jewish demographics and a changing Congress, coupled with campaign finance reform that would bridle special interests, could spell disaster for Jewish influence, reforms critics say.
“Like it or not, the current system is good for the Jewish community, so if we want to shoot ourselves in the foot, this is a good way to do it,” the observer said.
Miller of the Center for Responsive Politics agreed that the Jewish community could be among the hardest hit.
“Any community that gives more money through PACs than it does as individuals will be in trouble,” Miller said.
The Jewish community typically fits that billing. One exception, however, is the Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs, a pro-Israel women’s group that also places a strong emphasis on supporting pro-choice candidates.
JACPAC has turned away from PAC contributions and begun to focus almost exclusively on promoting individual contributions. Rather than distributing funds itself, JACPAC now sends out mailings identifying candidates its members should support.
If reform goes through, other PACs may begin to shift emphasis to similar direct mail campaigns.
The prospect of reform has already prompted Washington PAC to make contributions to senators who are soliciting for their 1998 re-election campaigns.
Those lawmakers, Amitay said, are “conscious that there might be a change and that this is the last chance to get in on ’98.”
If PACs are banned, Brooks said NATPAC might even step back from national politics and train its focus on the state and local levels.
There, he said, “we could make our case at the grass-roots level to the people who would be future congressmen and senators, and cultivate the relationships early.”
While most observers say campaign finance reform legislation remains a longshot for 1996, some speculate that the issue could still emerge as a rallying point for Republicans who promised radical reforms.
Meanwhile, many Jewish activists remain optimistic that Jewish influence can be sustained even in the face of restrictive new laws.
“The Jewish community has participated fully and been able to make its point of view known in the political process in the past,” said Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel for the American Jewish Committee, which has backed previous reform efforts.
“Whatever reform takes place, I have every confidence we’ll continue to make our voices heard. We’ll find a way to work within the system and try and help the process along.”