Reformers are cheering the Supreme Court's recent upholding of limits on campaign contributions to political candidates. But the really difficult work is only beginning. The reformers have to come up with campaign-finance rules and regulations that can't be dodged. Don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen. If rules were made to be broken, as the old saying goes, campaign-finance rules seem to be made to be circumvented.
Experience has made me a cynic. I have seen too many campaign-finance reforms create new problems to replace or add to those they were intended to solve. Take political action committees. To hear the reformers complain about PACs these days, you might almost forget that PACs once were a reform, created to empower grass-roots voices after the Watergate scandal.
A closer look at the loopholes in recent campaign reforms brings to mind Slate magazine editor Michael Kinsley's "law of political scandals": The real scandal is not what's illegal; it is what's legal.
For example, Bill Bradley and John McCain proudly stand together in favor of campaign contribution limits. But both also told NBC's Tim Russert that they see nothing wrong with using private corporate jets to fly to campaign events, sidestepping the ban on direct corporate donations to candidates. Under the rules, they must reimburse the plane's owner the equivalent of a first-class commercial fare.
McCain has used the jets of BellSouth and Union Pacific, both of which have had business before his Senate Commerce Committee. Bradley has reportedly taken 45 such trips as of November, mostly on jets owned by his supporters Allen and Co., a Wall Street investment firm, and Jordan Industries. George W. Bush tends to pay for his own planes, and Gore travels on government planes, which some critics see as another form of abuse.
In the Jan. 31 edition of the New Republic, Ryan Lizza, one of the magazine's assistant editors, describes several major loopholes, including:
Bundling. Corporations cannot give money directly to presidential or congressional candidates, but executives, their wives and children can each write $1,000 checks to candidates. The CEO can collect the checks and personally hand the bundle to the candidate in the name of the company. It's legal, as long as donors are not coerced into giving or reimbursed by their firms. The candidate gets the money and the corporation presumably gets a lot of gratitude. (Bradley has made news with this season's biggest bundle, $209,500 from Goldman Sachs executives and their family members. Bush raised eyebrows by raising the most overall, with 150 "Pioneers" each raising bundles of $100,000.)
Third parties. As long as there's no coordination between a campaign and an outside issue-advocacy group, the third parties can spend as much as they want on ads that look more than coincidentally like campaign ads.
What is to be done to curtail the drug-like dependency of modern campaigns on big money? One side, the prohibitionists, want more rules. The other, the libertarians, want fewer rules except those that require full disclosure of all donations and spending.
The Supreme Court's latest decision, Nixon vs. Shrink Missouri Government PAC, shows it to be as divided as the rest of the nation. A six-member majority questioned the idea that campaign money is speech and therefore deserving of First Amendment protection. But, in concurring opinions, they sounded divided over how much protection it should have.
The Internet and other modern technologies have made it easier for everyone to follow political money and hold recipients accountable. Unfortunately, it seems to take a lot to get the public outraged these days.
"The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance," the Irish politician John Philpot Curran said in 1790. The price of clean politics is eternal vigilance, too. Instead of rushing to make new rules to be broken or circumvented, we should first make better use of the tools we already have.