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A weakened economy invites more influence by foreign companies and their dealers or commercial agents in U.S. election campaigns. The latest display of money in politics is AUTOCAP — a political action committee funded by dealers who sell Japanese cars. AUTOCAP’s mode of operation is to wait until the last week or days of an election campaign and then quickly deluge the television with 30 second ads criticizing the candidate on issues deemed damaging, but not overtly focused on Japanese-American trade relations.

AUTOCAP’s interest is in making it more possible to sell Japanese cars with fewer tariffs, quotas, fuel efficiency, safety and pollution control standards. Out the television ads go after Senatorial candidate, John Durkin, from New Hampshire for missing votes as Senator years ago or for allegedly casting a bad vote on a tax issue. No mention is made of the real motive behind this campaign ad slush fund.

Last week, AUTOCAP struck in Minnesota against Democratic challenger, Paul Wellstone, who was giving Republican Senator Rudy Boschwitz a tight race. Over $200,000 was poured into that race and its goal was to re-elect Boschwitz who has a consistent anti-consumer voting record. He even voted against requiring used car dealers to notify unsuspecting buyers of any known defects in the purchased vehicle. AUTOCAP is organized as an independent political action committee. It is not supposed to be in touch with any candidates. As such, the law permits such independent committees to spend unlimited monies against or for candidates.

Campaign finance reform proposals circulating in Congress usually focus on how much money candidates should receive from Political Action Committees directly, on overall spending limits and on whether voluntary taxpayer checkoffs should be instituted similar to those for the Presidential race. So-called independent political action committees are more difficult to control or hold accountable. The Supreme Court has ruled that “money is speech” and that such committees cannot be restricted in how much they spend, so long as they do not coordinate nor consult with the candidates.

Philip M. Stern, in his incisive book, “The Best Congress Money Can Buy,” (Pantheon Pub. 1988) quotes the head of NCPAC as saying “A Group like ours could lie through it teeth, and the candidate it helps stays clean.”

There used to be a spending ceiling for each candidate. But in 1976 the Supreme Court removed the independent committees from those restrictions, saying that uncoordinated expenditures do “not presently appear to pose dangers of real or apparent corruption comparable with those identified with large [direct] contributions.” Stern comments: “The Supreme Court’s innocent picture was predicated on the assumption that the spending would truly be uncoordinated with any candidate, a questionable assumption in the practical world of politics.”

Next year, the drive for campaign finance reform will heat up again on Capitol Hill. But until the problem of “independent political action committees” is confronted, any reform of monies going directly to candidates will simply lead to the expansion of this “independent” sleight of hand alternative. Maybe a comprehensive constitutional amendment is needed to deal with money in elections.