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Open market lets you buy a politician

As New York's finest debate how best to stall campaign finance reform until the end of the legislative session, it's clear that governmental do-gooders have been barking up the wrong money tree.

Sunday's Buffalo News story about the new open market for Bills and Sabres tickets was a revelation -- and an inspiration.

After years of vainly advocating reform that limits the influence of money in politics, it brought me around 180 degrees. I now see the wisdom of a truly open market -- for politicians.

The major parties will still make wads of cash available for candidates. But with New York joining other states in dropping the prohibition on scalping and facilitating a "secondary market" for sports tickets, we can do the same thing with politicians.

Critics have long complained that reforms to ban soft money, limit hard money and regulate campaign advertising are not only unconstitutional, they're unworkable. They insist the campaign system is a giant balloon: Squeeze it in one place, and it expands someplace else.

In other words, cut off one avenue to buy politicians, and big-money interests will simply find another means -- just like scalpers.

So let's end the charade, drop all the monetary limits and let the free market operate.

Imagine the possibilities for the Average Joe.

Instead of banding together with friends to buy a Sabres season ticket, pool that money and buy Hillary Rodham Clinton or Rudy Giuliani -- at least for a few days. That would be more than enough to get the victor to drop George Bush's foolish passport requirement.

Or if New York's presidential contenders are out of your price range -- like "gold" Sabres tickets -- buy yourself a "bronze" politician. Put a few grand down on Shelly Silver or Joe Bruno -- and make them rewrite state labor law to give taxpayers a break instead of the unions. Buying them is the only way it'll happen.

With all restrictions removed, there will be a politician for every budget.

Not surprisingly, do-gooders stuck in the old paradigm are not thrilled with my reform.

"How much different [would it be] than today?" mused Rachel Leon, Common Cause/New York executive director. "We have such weak laws and so many loopholes. . . . It's the power of who has the most money rather than the merit of their ideas."

Still, she said, removing all the limits would "bring out the worst in our leaders and our parties."

But how much worse could it get? Just this week, Senate Republicans stalled Gov. Eliot Spitzer's campaign finance reform effort, saying they won't act until they hold a series of round-table discussions -- conveniently timed for after the legislative session ends.

In the meantime, fewer than 1 percent of New Yorkers contribute to state candidates, a Common Cause study found. But those who do contribute pony up big: 55 percent of them give more than the $2,100 limit that applies to federal donations. It's no wonder the rest of the populace feels left out.

Granted, more people could contribute now. But dropping the restrictions would give campaign funding the cachet of paying for sports or concert tickets and turn politicians into stars. Everyone would want to be a part of it.

Of course, we also could each pay just $2 or $3 a year in taxes to fund a truly functional public financing system to return politics to the average person.

But anything funded through government is suspect.

It's much better if we turn to the open market because, as with sports tickets, you really do get what you pay for.

e-mail: rwatson@buffnews.com

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