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Trying to limit the power of money

Published Sep. 9, 2005

It's easy to belittle those who fight for piecemeal reforms in our campaign money system, and much derision will come the way of John McCain in the weeks ahead.

The bill Arizona's McCain and his Democratic colleague, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, began pushing on the Senate floor faces two very different kinds of opposition. It is argued that the bill doesn't go far enough and could have unintended consequences without achieving "real" reform. And it is also argued that it goes too far in restricting those exercising their legitimate rights to affect the direction of the political system.

The first argument is certainly half true. The main purpose of McCain-Feingold is to stop the flow of those huge, unregulated "soft money" contributions into the political system.

Doing that is a good thing _ big money does have too much influence on our politics _ but it's not revolutionary reform. Money always has a way of finding new tributaries into politics. We know for certain that McCain-Feingold, by itself, can't dam them all up.

A more far-reaching reform would give candidates a chance to opt out of the money chase by offering them public financing in exchange for rejecting privately raised funds. Alternatively, the provision of free television and radio time _ the price of which would probably be a tax credit to television stations required to give up political ad revenues _ would reduce the imperative for 24/7/365 fundraising by our politicians.

But if McCain-Feingold is defeated, such reforms will become less rather than more likely. Their bill _ as long as it is not disfigured with amendments designed to undermine its purpose _ will get rid of some of the worst abuses and allow reformers to move on to the next steps. If this bill dies, the result is not likely to be a push for more radical reform. Its defeat would signal that even modest reform is impossible.

Those who say that any effort to regulate political money violates the First Amendment ignore our history. Under Teddy Roosevelt's presidency, Congress outlawed corporate contributions to campaigns. It was the first of many efforts to limit the corrupting influence of cash while preserving a free and vigorous public debate.

What often goes unacknowledged in these campaign money battles is the paradox, noted by the great political scientist Robert Dahl, that market economies (1) are more conducive to democracy than to other economic systems, and yet (2) also pose a large problem for democracy.

Democracy tends to do well under market systems because free economies leave large amounts of power (and money) out of the hands of government. People opposed to any given government can usually find the resources to make their case and have a chance of winning the next election. But when the government owns everything, as the libertarian economist F.A. Hayek put it, it owns "the means to all our ends."

Yet democracy is a system of "one person, one vote," not "one dollar, one vote." The big concentrations of economic power that market economies make possible can have undue influence on governments. A capitalist democracy ceases to be capitalist when the government takes over the economy. But it ceases to be democratic when the power of monied interests dominates.

Campaign finance reformers thus undertake what might be seen as a tragic but necessary task. They know right from the start that under capitalism, those with a lot of money will always talk louder than those with less. No campaign reform can change that.

Yet they also know that their objective is to keep money's voice from becoming deafening. So they must keep proposing new ways of limiting money's power, realizing that in five, 10 or 20 years, money will find new ways of talking.

McCain and Feingold are thus proposing a first step that doesn't go far enough, but is absolutely necessary if other steps are to be taken.

McCain likes to name Teddy Roosevelt as his hero. The Republican Roosevelt had it right when he said: "Those who oppose all reform will do well to remember that ruin in its worst form is inevitable if our national life brings us nothing better than swollen fortunes for the few and the triumph in both politics and business of a sordid and selfish materialism." Our political money system is sordid, and the debate in the Senate over the next two weeks will test our capacity to reform it.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

Washington Post Writers Group