Big money and politics

July 21, 2005

MONEY IS, of course, the mother's milk of politics, as former California Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh once aptly observed. So, perhaps it's to be expected that candidates and party officials want to be able to get as much as possible from one place.

That's why it took more than seven years for Congress to enact the 2002 reforms that closed the spigot of unlimited "soft money" from political parties to candidates. And also why the big money shifted, in response, from party committees to tax-exempt special interest groups, which had virtually no limits on the $544 million they poured into the 2004 presidential election.

Sponsors of the original legislation want to close that spigot, too, by including the so-called 527 special interest groups within its regulations - an obvious correction that should have been accomplished by the Federal Election Commission. But support for the fix has been hobbled as the leadership of both parties tries to calculate what result would be in its best interest.

Democrats, who were the main supporters of the original legislation - sponsored by Republicans John McCain and Christopher Shay and Democrats Russell D. Feingold and Martin T. Meehan - got the most benefit from 527s in last year's campaign. Thanks to, funded heavily by investor George Soros, and other such groups, $266 million was spent on issue ads and get-out-the-vote efforts for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry - compared with $144 million spent by similar groups on behalf of President Bush.

Thus, Republicans are most eager to change the law, while Democrats say they are not yet convinced that it needs fixing.

Surely the worst idea comes from Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's County Democrat, who teamed up with a band of conservative Republicans to urge that instead of imposing more regulations on 527s, restraints should come off the political parties.

Deep-pocketed donors could contribute a total of $1 million or more to federal candidates and political party committees during a two-year election cycle. Each donation would be subject to gift limits - $4,200 per candidate, for example. But the candidate and party committee could transfer money between those accounts.

Mr. Wynn scoffs at the notion that a donor could direct the flow of funds through this maze to benefit a single candidate with the total amount. But it's possible. Worse even than channeling all the funds to a single candidate would be reaffirming the power of the political fat cat to lavish enough money among however many recipients to make sure his voice is heard better than others.

One of the great campaign finance success stories of last year's election was the surge in the number of small donors, many of whom answered appeals through the Internet. Democrats proved particularly adept at tapping this source of funds, of necessity, because their party has traditionally lagged behind the GOP in direct contributors and felt the loss of party soft money most acutely.

Lots of people contributing a little for a cause or candidate they believe in - that's democracy, and it should be applied to the 527s as well.

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