Campaign finance reform: Time to break the cycle Lots of words and little action show the abusive system must be managed, not overhauled.

BOOKS: THE ARGUMENT

July 26, 1998|By Paul Taylor | Paul Taylor,Special to the sun

Campaign finance reform has become the Vietnam of domestic public policy. Just about everyone knows the fight is not winnable, but no one has figured out a way to bring it to an honorable end.

The paralysis began to settle in shortly after enactment of the campaign finance reforms of the mid-1970s. It has deepened with each election since. Small loopholes have grown into giant loopholes; campaign finance abuses have become an unhappy but unshakeable fixture of modern campaigns, like attack ads and sound bites. And as the laws have become more tattered, the prospects for a fix have grown more distant.

Reform has come to be seen by the public as a fool's game; new laws will simply produce new loopholes, so why bother? This resignation explains why the scandals of 1996 have failed to generate a groundswell for change. Despite all the headlines and hearings, Congress will bury campaign finance reform legislation once again this fall. It knows the public isn't paying much attention. And in the November election, it knows no incumbent will pay a price.

There's a temptation to finger Congress as the heavy of this piece. Its members cynically keep in place a system that got them to office and keeps them in office. Why change the rules of a game that's stacked in your favor?

But incumbent self-protection is only part of the problem. The bigger part is that the public is not mistaken. The United States system of money and politics cannot be overhauled. It cannot be "solved." It can only be managed.

Yes, it can be managed better than it's being managed now. But to get from here to there, it would help to de-escalate the rhetoric on the issue, acknowledge the strengths as well as the weaknesses of our political culture, and confess that a magic cure does not exist. Perhaps then it will be possible to muddle toward a marginally better system. And then - as a wise man once proposed during the height of the Vietnam War - to declare victory and get out.

In that spirit, here are some seat-of-the-pants "truths" about money and politics that never get enough ventilation.

The United States political system is not fundamentally corrupt. You want corruption? Take a world tour of kleptocracies from Albania to the former Zaire. Check out the cozy relationship of money to power in the capitals of Russia, Japan, Italy, Mexico, Indonesia and China. Rummage through the pages of our own history, from the Robber Barons to Teapot Dome. What makes us better, now? We enjoy the world's most robust culture of transparency. Our democratic habits demand it; so do our financial markets, so does our information revolution. Where transparency reigns, corruption withers.

Does money nonetheless buy access and influence? Of course. The federal government gets and spends nearly $2 trillion a year. It makes policy that steers the way trillions more are gotten and spent in the private sector. Money would have to be crazy not to want to march into the temples of government and tilt the scales in its favor. And money is not crazy.

There will always be a tension between the truth that a capitalist economy thrives on inequality, and the truth that a democratic polity depends on equal representation. The Supreme Court, in its landmark 1976 campaign finance ruling, Buckley v. Valeo, grappled with this tension and came down with what many regard as an unwise, split-the-baby-in-half compromise.

It said that Congress cannot limit campaign spending, for spending money on politics is a form of constitutionally protected speech. It said Congress could restrict the size of campaign contributions, on the theory that the government has an interest in preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption. This ruling has helped create the mess we're in today. But the heart of the problem is not the court decision. The heart of the problem is that when core values collide, things will always be messy.

The result is that we have a campaign finance system that is regulated, but only partially. You want to give money to a candidate? There are limits. You want to give money to a party? There are limits (and loopholes), but there are no limits on how much money a candidate or party can spend. There are no limits on how much a candidate can give to himself or herself. And there are no limits on how much you can give to an independent group, which can in turn use that money to run ads that help elect or defeat the very candidates to whom you can only give a limited amount of money.

Understand all that? Neither do most people. But money does, and, as former Clinton adviser Harold Ickes Jr. put it, "money always finds a crack." In the generation since Buckley, the

cracks have gotten wider, the regulations thinner, and the public's faith in the integrity of the system shallower.

What to do? Proposed solutions come from one of three camps - the deregulators, the overhaulers and the tinkerers.

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