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Two controversies generated by the Reform Party’s unique position in
American politics are shedding light on the titled electoral playing
field. One is the debate over whether the Reform Party presidential
candidate will be admitted to the televised debates in the fall. The
other centers on the issue of public financing and is largely a dispute
over whether independents should be availing themselves of public money,
just as the Democrats and Republicans do.

So far, it’s the public financing that has drawn the most fire. Media
commentary on the Reform Party’s eligibility for $12.6 million in
general election funding began during the summer. The negative refrain
at that time was how the “pot o’ gold” would attract political gold
diggers.

Of course, that was the whole point. The 1974 legislation which
created the public financing program was designed to make sure that
minor parties and candidates could compete in the two-party dominated
arena. Having $13 million available to its nominee helps the Reform
Party attract bigger and better candidates — candidates who can compete
more effectively with the Democratic and Republican nominees. Those
nominees, by the way, are guaranteed $60 million apiece in public funds.
No doubt John McCain, Bill Bradley, Al Gore and George W. Bush found the
chance to win $60 million for their campaigns attractive.

But in the eyes of the media, they’re not gold diggers. They’re
statesmen. It’s kind of like when a mother on welfare takes an
off-the-books job cleaning houses to supplement her public assistance.
She’s a welfare cheat. But the major corporations which avail themselves
of esoteric loopholes in the IRS code (loopholes their lobbyists wrote)
and avoid paying hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes are just good
businessmen.

Lately, Reform’s eligibility for public money is being criticized
because, as some commentators have noted, Pat Buchanan and by
(illogical) extension one of his key endorsers — me — could be the
beneficiaries. Some, like Roger Pilon, opined in the New York Times that
the Buchanan/Fulani specter was one more argument against any public
funding at all. Others, like Alair Townsend, of Crain’s New York
Business who are supporters of public financing, are disturbed that the
Buchanan campaign might receive the $12.6 million because … well, she
thinks that Buchanan and I are “dangerous.” Moreover, she’s worried the
money will go for my “party-building” efforts.

First of all, should Pat Buchanan become the Reform nominee, the
money will go to his campaign committee to be spent in accordance with
FEC guidelines for presidential campaigns and will be carefully audited
by the FEC. Will the effect of Buchanan’s candidacy be to build the
Reform Party? I sure hope so. We’re not a major party. We’re a minor
party. We’re in the business of party-building. That’s what public
financing for minor parties is about — to allow minor parties a shot at
becoming major. Otherwise, public financing would be nothing but a ploy
to maintain the status quo and keep incumbency permanent. That’s
supposed to be unconstitutional — even though it’s standard practice in
electoral politics.

Still others, like Sean Wilentz of The New Republic, have protested
the “quirk” in campaign laws that enables Reform to receive the money in
the first place. Let’s go back to the basics.

After the fundraising excesses of Watergate and the resignation of
Richard Nixon, Congress set about instituting a series of reforms
designed to “limit the actuality and appearance of corruption” in
federal elections. It passed a series of amendments in 1974 to the
Federal Elections Campaign Act of 1971 and to the Internal Revenue Code
of 1954 which established public financing for presidential candidates
for the first time — a matching funds program for the primaries and
public election funding for the general election. Congress conjoined
this public funding with contribution and expenditure limits in an
effort to make fundraising for presidential campaigns more transparent,
accountable and democratic.

An important element of FECA’s public funding was establishing
categories of “major” and “minor” parties at the national level. A major
party polled 25 percent or more for its presidential candidate. A minor
party polled between 5 and 25 percent. Major parties would be entitled
to public financing for their general election campaigns up to the full
expenditure limit, which is currently around $66 million. Minor parties
would be entitled to a proportional share based on their percentage of
the vote. Ross Perot’s 8.5 percent in 1996 established the Reform Party
as a new national minor party — the first party to qualify as such
since the amending of FECA and the IRS code.

Any public financing program which funded only the status quo (i.e.,
the Republicans and Democrats) would be unconstitutional. The minor
party category was established in order to make access to public funding
fair and equitable in accordance with basic constitutional principles of
equal protection and the First Amendment. That’s not what you’d call a
“quirk.”

What is really bothering Townsend and Wilentz and a gaggle of other
commentators is that the Reform Party finally accomplished what the
post-Watergate reformers put down on paper, but never believed could be
done. Now that it has happened, it’s “dangerous.” It’s opening a
Pandora’s box of novel questions that the two partyists thought they’d
never have to answer.

Here’s are some. If the taxpayers are funding the Reform Party’s
candidate, don’t they have the right to see that candidate in the
televised presidential debates? And what about the fact that the debates
are sponsored by an organization — the Commission on Presidential
Debates — that receives a tax exemption because it purports to provide
a nonpartisan educational service to the public? Shouldn’t that
organization be required to be nonpartisan, rather than bipartisan?
Doesn’t it have the obligation to take the particular realities of minor
party participation into account just the way Congress and the Supreme
Court had to?

Campaign 2000 will give us a first round of answers — so stay tuned!

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