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Separate winning and money

Published Sep. 2, 2005

I hope they've got it right this time: that the newest campaign reform legislation will deliver us from the spectacle of politicians _ and official policies _ being bought and sold like any other commodity.

And maybe they have. This legislation, so long in the making, has some very sensible features, including an exception to soft-money contribution limits for candidates facing opponents rich enough to finance their own campaigns.

But I remember something James N. Loughran said about reform five years ago: "You will fail unless you separate winning and money."

Loughran, president of St. Peter's College in Jersey City, N.J., was talking about efforts then under way to keep big-time athletics from distorting the academic life of America's colleges and universities.

"Your efforts," he told a council of National Collegiate Athletic Association presidents, "are doomed to fail if you take your mandate to be "reform,' if you allow to continue the business-as-usual pattern of legislating more rules and calling for more vigilant enforcement while at the same time negotiating ever more lucrative TV contracts, million-dollar endorsements and the like. You have a chance to succeed only if you acknowledge the contradiction built into big-time sports and force a choice between professionalism and amateurism, dollars and academic integrity."

Loughran told me last week that he doesn't know enough about the campaign reform act to know if the same critique applies.

Campaign finance reform, as was the case with athletic reform, is an attempt to reconcile two conflicting ideas. We want our democracy in the hands of the people, but we also want our candidates and our parties to win. The former conjures up visions of volunteers in ramshackle offices, stuffing envelopes and making phone calls on behalf of their candidates. The latter necessitates TV ads, polling, issues research and other things that cost a pile of money. Politicians have turned to those who can produce the money _ PACs, unions, lobbyists and well-endowed special interests _ for the same reason Willie Sutton turned to banks. One result has been increased influence of moneyed interests while the ordinary voter seems to dwindle to insignificance.

Can campaign finance reform redress that imbalance?

Loughran is satisfied that it can't be done in collegiate athletics. "Big-time college sports," he still believes, "conflict not only with amateurism but also with academic integrity and the ideals of any good college; in the system that exists, this conflict is inescapable; and therefore, reform is impossible." At the end, he says, you have to "separate winning and money." But how?

The only way to avoid the corrupting influence of money-under-the-table payments by boosters, exploitation of young athletes who only pretend to be students while the athletic tail wags the academic dog _ is to reduce severely the stakes of the game, he says.

Now suppose it's the case that big-time politics conflict not only with grass-roots citizen involvement but also with the integrity and ideals we like to espouse _ and suppose that conflict is inescapable. What are we to do?

Reducing the stakes is clearly not an option. Does it follow from Loughran's analysis that reform is impossible _ that moneyed interests will quickly find a way around the proscriptions of the new legislation, and that reform will be proved a delusion once again?

Maybe Loughran would consider a corollary to his theorem, a second way to avoid the corruption of deception: Do what is necessary, but do it right in the open. Indeed, some have argued that one way to cleanse big-time college athletics is to allow the athletes to be paid _ directly and openly. Translating that to politics would suggest some combination of private contributions fully disclosed, public funding of campaigns and free TV ads.

It may be as close as we can come to separating winning and money.

+ William Raspberry is a Washington Post columnist. +

Washington Post Writers Group