Proposed campaign spending laws creating rift in Jewish community

WASHINGTON, D.C. — 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 created a rift in the Jewish community.

On the one hand, many Jewish leaders agree that the influence of special interest groups needs to be curbed.

On the other hand, many also recognize that the Jewish community has long benefited from the current system by wielding influence disproportionate to its numbers.

Thus, critics say efforts to shackle special interests will harm Jewish interests, potentially shutting Jews out of the legislative decision-making process.

The pro-Israel voice, resounding from the voices 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 Bill 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; ban contributions from PACs; and increase disclosure and accountability for political advertising.

The movement to write new campaign financing laws has been embraced by an array of prominent political figures, including retiring Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), former presidential candidates Ross Perot and Paul Tsongas, and GOP 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.

But 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.

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 vital.

"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.-Israel relationship over the next decade.

Meanwhile, demographic trends may be working against Jewish interests. An 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.

Changing Jewish demographics and a changing Congress, coupled with campaign finance reform that would bridle special interests, could spell disaster for Jewish influence, reform critics say.

"Any community that gives more money through PACs than it does as individuals will be in trouble," said Miller of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Although the Jewish community typically fits that billing, many Jewish activists remain optimistic that Jewish influence can be sustained — even in the face of restrictive new laws.

"Whatever reform takes place, I have every confidence we'll continue to make our voices heard," said Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel for the American Jewish Committee. We'll find a way to work within the system and try and help the process along."