The Evil of Access
So although issues like terrorism, healthcare and pollution absorb far more public attention and concern, the scandal of strings-attached money corrupting politics and government is the most urgent domestic problem in America today--because it makes it harder to solve nearly all our other problems. How can we produce smart defense, environmental and health policies if arms contractors, oil firms and HMOs have such a hammerlock on the committees charged with considering reforms? The culprit is not corrupt candidates but a corrupt system that coerces good people to take tainted money.
The old and much-discussed saga of political money may reach a climax between now and 2004 as a result of three epic developments:
First, the corporate scandals of 2001-2 started with questions about corrupt financing practices and then moved to questions about corrupt political practices. Joan Claybrook, head of Public Citizen and a veteran of the campaign finance wars, says, "Political money from the Enrons and others bought loopholes, exemptions, lax law enforcement, underfunded regulatory agencies and the presumption that corporate officials could buy anything they wanted with the shareholders' money." Once the current war fever abates electorally, will the Enron/Adelphia/Global Crossing/Tyco/WorldCom scandals lead to a shift in our political zeitgeist, as corruption a century ago led to the Progressive Era?
Second, the McCain-Feingold fight re-educated the public about money in politics. Given all the problems of our current system, the McCain-Feingold law is like throwing a ten-foot rope to a drowning swimmer forty feet offshore. But it's necessary to stop huge soft-money federal gifts that enable big interests to make an end run around federal bans on corporate and labor donations.
Third, the Supreme Court will likely rule next spring on the constitutionality of McCain-Feingold's two major provisions: banning soft-money fundraising by the national parties and restricting soft money for sham "issue" ads. This will be the Court's first major consideration of campaign finance since 1976's disastrous Buckley v. Valeo ruling, which held that legislatively enacted "expenditure limits" were an unconstitutional infringement on speech. If the Court had reached a different conclusion then, there would be no $2 million House candidates today, no $15 million Senate candidates, no $74 million mayoral candidates.
Moreover, the State of Vermont last year enacted a spending ceiling. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit initially upheld the law in August, arguing that evidence of legislators routinely selling access showed the law was a constitutionally permissible way of stopping such corruption. If this case goes to the Supreme Court with McCain-Feingold--and swing Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy agree with the Second Circuit majority--we'll be close to taking the for-sale sign off our democracy.
Meanwhile, can the political process significantly reform not just the soft-money but also the hard-money system?