Campaign finance needs true reform

Freedom New Mexico

Republican presidential candidate John McCain has suggested Democrat Barack Obama’s eye-popping prowess at fundraising may signal the end of the practice, established after Watergate, of having presidential campaigns funded by the taxpayers.

Sen. McCain thinks that’s a shame. We think it would be cause for celebration.

Sen. Obama announced on Sunday that his campaign had raised a record $150 million during September, and the money is still pouring in. So far the Democrat has raised more than $600 million. McCain opted to accept “public” financing of $84 million for the general election. As a result, Obama is able outspend him substantially, run four TV ads for every ad McCain runs, and challenge him in states that were solidly Republican in 2004.

“History shows us where unlimited amounts of money are in political campaigns, it leads to scandal,” McCain tut-tutted. Unfortunately the good senator is mistaking effect for cause.

Big money finds its way into politics because the government is so big and powerful it can make or break businesses and sometimes entire industries, or reshape the playing field to favor some companies (and unions and private organizations of all kinds) and harm others. Companies almost have to participate in politics as a matter of self-preservation.

Anyone truly scandalized by the amount of money spent in political campaigns and lobbying should start working diligently to reduce the size and scope of government, for that is the only effective way to change the dynamic. Limits on campaign contributions only mask the flow of money.

Both the Obama and McCain campaigns are actively soliciting donations of $25,000 to $70,000 through “joint fundraising” committees, which also send money to political parties, but are calculated to allow big-money donors to make sure a candidate knows they have been generous.

These committees have taken in more than $300 million this year (with Sen. McCain holding a slight advantage), compared to $69 million in 2004. So big money finds its way to those in a position to do favors.

It almost seems as if every time Congress passes a law ostensibly designed to eliminate the “taint” of big money in politics, the money gets bigger. That is hardly surprising, because the government keeps getting bigger and asserting control over more areas of life. As the government responds to the financial crisis its policies precipitated with unprecedented sums in bailouts and buyouts, you can be sure that the incentive to curry favor with (or protect oneself from) government will only grow.

The idea that having the taxpayers at large fund presidential campaigns was somehow more high-minded or moral than having private donors do so was never sound. Given that about half of Americans don’t even vote, how moral is it to use money taken by force from people with no interest in politics to fund politicians’ ambitions?

The most effective form of campaign finance reform would be to eliminate limits on donations but require they be posted on the Internet the day they are received with details about who they are from. That way voters would have the information needed to decide to what extent donations taint candidates they are considering supporting. The current system of limits and loopholes does nothing to make politics more honest.