Let the Reform candidate debate

By Jack Kemp

Copley News Service

This year, the Reform Party's presidential candidate, probably Pat Buchanan, will receive more than $12 million in federal matching funds, but as things stand now, he will not be given a chance to debate the Republican and Democratic candidates. That's wrong.

An electorate that wants real change in fiscal, education and foreign policies will make sure the Reform Party remains a force to be reckoned with - at least until it has done its job of motivating the two major parties to offer voters a real choice.

Naturally I'd like to see the Republican Party become the party of reform, but it doesn't look like that is going to happen any time soon. The Republicans have squandered their control of Congress and continue to avoid serious consideration of tax, Social Security or Medicare reform.

George W. Bush, while the best presidential candidate, appears unwilling to lead the GOP with a visionary reform agenda. He resists proposing bold reform to the tax code or the Social Security system. He has yet to make an issue of preventing American sovereignty from slipping away to the alphabet soup of international bureaucracies such as the U.N., the IMF and the WTO. The governor also seems content with a foreign policy that designates us the world's policeman and endorses the widespread use of economic sanctions and boycotts that harm innocent people.

The Democrats are the party of the status quo. The best Al Gore can do is label his opponents as "extremists" and any hint of reform as a "risky scheme." His strategy is to claim credit for everything good in America and scare people into believing that only he can prevent it from falling apart.

The Reform Party is a national party, but it is considered a "minor" one by the Federal Election Commission. The FEC defines a minor party to be "a political party whose candidate for the presidency in the preceding presidential election received more than 5 percent, but less than 25 percent, of the total popular votes cast." Ross Perot, founder of the Reform Party, received more than 8 percent of the popular vote in the 1996 presidential election, entitling the party to partial funding for its convention in Long Beach, Calif., in August of this year.

In order to participate in the debates, however, all candidates must satisfy certain eligibility requirements established by the independent Commission on Presidential Debates, a private, nonpartisan, nonprofit corporation with co-chairmen and a board of directors that looks like an honor roll of the Republican and Democratic establishments. Under its old rules, the CPD required candidates to be U.S. citizens of at least 35 years of age and to have lived in the United States for the last 14 years, as the Constitution demands; to be on the ballot in enough states to potentially win a majority of the electoral vote; to be organized in a majority of the states where they are on the ballot; and to be eligible for matching funds from the FEC. Reform Party candidates meet those requirements.

Yet according to a new rule by the CPD, candidates must also receive at least 15 percent support in the polls three weeks prior to a debate before being allowed to participate in the debate, even though third-party presidential candidates qualify for public matching funds if they received at least 5 percent of the popular vote cast in the last presidential election. This additional criterion makes it virtually impossible for a third-party candidate to participate in the debates.

Perot set a high standard when he received 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992, and the CPD may be using that as the benchmark for establishing their threshold for participation in the presidential debates. But a 15 percent threshold for the debates is totally unreasonable and discriminatory when the threshold for receiving public matching funds is only 5 percent.

The CPD appears to ignore the fact that no candidate has ever been at 15 percent in the polls prior to the debates. In 1992, Perot only reached double digits after participating in the debates. A rule at such variance with the criterion for providing candidates public funding gives the clear appearance of impropriety by the CPD and makes the commission appear to be the tool of an entrenched political establishment that will go to any extreme to banish a third party active from the political scene.

The American public deserves to hear bold reform proposals that the two major parties are too timid to consider. If the public is going to support the Reform Party candidates with its federal tax dollars, then surely it deserves to hear what those candidates have to offer.

Jack Kemp is co-director of Empower America and Distinguished Fellow of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.