Putting Lobbyists on Leashes : Can State Curb Political Cash?

William Endicott is chief of The Times' Sacramento Bureau.

Trying to reform the way California political campaigns are conducted is like trying to press a wet decal on a dry window pane: As fast you iron out a bubble in one place, another one pops up somewhere else.

The mal-influence of money on politics, for instance, was supposed to have been curbed once and for all in 1974 when voters approved the sweeping political reform act known as Proposition 9.

But by the time the courts finished winnowing out unconstitutional provisions, about all that was left was a requirement that givers and takers of campaign contributions be fully disclosed.

Now is it much easier to trace the huge amounts of money that change hands in a campaign. But the flood of dollars continues unabated and one could argue that things have not changed much from the days of notorious lobbyist czar Artie Samish, who was once quoted as saying, "Drop a $2-bill in the Capitol rotunda and you'll start a riot."

One of the outgrowths of the continuing money flow has been a relatively new campaign industry, the political consulting business; and here is where another one of those bubbles has popped up. With their no-holds-barred, win-at-all-costs approach, consultants have produced a whole new set of campaign abuses. Political writer Larry Liebert of the San Francisco Chronicle has fittingly described them as "the pit bulls of politics."

It was inevitable that sooner or later someone would suggest that the pit bulls be put on a leash, and curbing them is exactly what has now been proposed by Dan Stanford, chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

"It is time to stop talking about the subject of dirty campaigns and begin doing something," Stanford said two weeks ago as he unveiled a proposal to license paid professional political consultants and regulate their conduct.

While Stanford seems to be addressing a symptom instead of the disease represented by massive campaign spending, he nonetheless has at least focused attention on a growing problem--one never more evident than in the 1984 election year and its rash of misleading television commercials and computerized direct-mail pieces that bordered on consumer fraud.

In his effort to reduce mudslinging and obfuscation, Stanford initially appeared to be trampling First Amendment rights, suggesting that the content of political literature and commercials be subject to FPPC regulation. Consultants outraged over the idea of being licensed concentrated on that provision in their criticism, and Stanford abandoned it last Tuesday .

"We have no desire to limit, prohibit or discourage legitimate First Amendment political expression, and we have no desire to become the arbiter of political opinion," he said.

But he would try to hold both consultants and candidates accountable for their campaigns by requiring both parties to give prior approval to all campaign materials. "Now they point to one another and neither one accepts responsibility," he said. "In many cases, that is offered as a defense."

The same requirement would be imposed on either consultants and the campaign committees or on individuals behind initiatives and other ballot measures, or on both.

Aside from the dual accountability, Stanford's proposal now is limited to two major areas:

--Professional political consultants would be required to pay a nominal fee and register with the FPPC to practice their profession in California, much as lobbyists do now in registering with the secretary of state.

--Consultants would be required to make full disclosure of their financial interests, sources of income and campaign expenditures and adopt standard business practices, such as having contracts in writing.

Violations of reporting requirements or engaging in any practices in conflict with the 1974 Political Reform Act, such as laundering campaign contributions, would result in a range of disciplinary measures ranging from public censure to fines or license revocation.

To emphasize the magnitude of the problem he wants to deal with, Stanford noted that in the 20 state Senate races last year, more than $1.5 million was paid to consulting firms and campaign managers, and more than $11 million was paid to consulting firms or campaign managers involved in ballot-measure campaigns.

"If money is the milk of politics," he said, "then political consultants are the fast-fingered dairymen."

Except for the political consultants themselves, it is hard to find anyone who won't agree with Stanford that the electoral process has been skewed by the growing presence of consultants. In fact, many politicians who hire these political masterminds are paying lip service to the idea that they need to be regulated. When it is time for the votes in the Legislature to be counted, however, don't count on Stanford's proposal becoming law.

When asked to reform the campaign system in which they have learned to participate successfully, legislators have been notably disinclined to tamper. Their attitude seems to be, "Better the devil you know." But even if Stanford's proposal succeeds, another bubble will be popping up. It always does.

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