Campaign finance: the Savage model


April 01, 2001|By C. FRASER SMITH

THE GUCCI Establishment of Washington -- lawmakers and lobbyists -- may find the current campaign fundraising debate amusing.

The bottom line won't change: Money won't get less important to their "votes."

If senators and representatives tighten the soft money screws too tightly, contributions of hard dollars will be even more important. That's why those limits were doubled last week.

Soft money grabs the headlines because it comes in by the bale for incumbents whose "access" (read votes and influence) matters to the givers.

What's going on is called reform. Translation: a struggle by the few to slow the cycle of bribery and extortion aiding the many.

Lawmakers ask for contributions (the extortion phase) and the wealthy write checks (the bribery phase).

This is actually legal.

Senators John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Russell Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, challenged their colleagues with polls showing most Americans don't think Congress can reform itself. That rhetoric could force some sort of reform.

But the deal isn't done. Democrats know they need the big soft money contributors more than Republicans because Republicans have mastered the art of collecting relatively small contributions from Americans who can't hire lobbyists.

So, you almost wonder why President Bush, a Republican, isn't eager to sign the McCain-Feingold legislation.

At this point (or earlier), one enters the Alice-in-Wonderland phase. The Gucci Establishment doesn't much care what happens in the two houses because, in a sense, the public officials become their lobbyists. Senators and representatives want to preserve the value of their product: access. They want the current system because people of means know how it works and participate eagerly -- and legally. Both sides want to preserve a system that rewards both sides of the equation -- particularly in the area of soft money, one of the best euphemisms going.

Soft money came into the arena as money to be used for party building -- not for direct aid to a specific candidate. But many soft money advertisements leave no doubt about the target beneficiary.

Defenders of the system call it free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed, though it might have a different view now.

The McCain-Feingold measure could be and almost certainly will be appealed to the high court. Reform opponents failed last Thursday to kill the bill by adding a rider that would make all of it invalid if any part of it were struck down by the high court.

What a spectacle. Money -- which can nullify the constitutional precept of one person, one vote -- protected by that same document.

Money can suffocate truth. "How," you may ask.

By spreading a big lie. By tapping soft money accounts to flood the media with advertisements that nullify the truth. One takes a slogan that obfuscates or oversimplifies and pounds it into the consciousness of the voters. A lie fortified by campaign funds is half-way around the world before the truth gets its pants on.

McCain-Feingold may simply force the smart lawyers to new avenues of giving. Big money finds the level it seeks. But the bill's supporters know this, and suggest that the price of a decent system is constant vigilance. Reform is a process not an event.

The whole thing makes a long-time observer of reform efforts in Maryland a bit nostalgic (an antidote for depression and terminal cynicism). The whole system needs to find its way back to fundraisers built around small-ticket bull roasts, oyster suppers and even golf tournaments (my personal favorite).

I went to one of these last year and remembered the way it's supposed to work.

Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Howard Democrat, threw a party at the Rams Head Tavern in Savage, home to many of her earliest supporters. She stood on a chair to say thanks and to point out that many of the people in the room had participated in her successes -- made them possible, she said. In that room, watching next-door neighbor types enjoying the food and the company, you could believe it for a minute or so.

These partisans would help to finance a campaign that will cost between $30,000 and $40,000 -- hard money for hard expenditures: lawn signs, bumper stickers, phone calls, office rentals, computer stuff.

Money did equal speech here and, perhaps, it was this sort of money the Supreme Court had in mind when it said speech and cash were equivalent means of exchange in a democracy.

At events like this all over Maryland, people turn out from deep in the grass roots to put a few dollars on someone they know and trust.

"I've been thinking about how blessed I am," the delegate said. She had been able to help a constituent with a serious disease, someone whose health problem had a solution -- but one that was out of her reach until the delegate intervened.

"Idamae Mann is here with us tonight 14 years later," the candidate said.

But, of course, you can't run for president on the proceeds of a bake sale, so we're left in the hands of John McCain, Russ Feingold and the posse from Gucci Gulch.

C. Fraser Smith writes editorials for The Sun from Howard County.

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