The Washington Times

It has, indeed, been interesting to watch the Senate debating campaign-finance reform in such grand style. One could almost be forgiven for taking seriously the chamber’s aggrandizing description as the “world’s greatest deliberative body.”

Almost, that is. Because the truth is that on the strength of the campaign-finance reform votes themselves, there is only one point on which members of the Senate got truly inspired in their quest to expunge the dreadful effects of money on politics. That is when they were voting overwhelmingly to double the limit on “hard money” they will accept from their worthy contributors. The vote, 84-16, was about as lopsided a margin as you get in the Senate short of unanimity, which tends to be reserved for posturing of an altogether meaningless variety. When most of the rest of the campaign-finance reform provisions under consideration – which is to say, the ones that would actually make it slightly harder for politicians and political parties to raise money – were being decided by narrow margins, here was a measure senators could really get behind. More money, less work. There’s the good life.

In addition to the doubling of the limit on allowable contributions for your favorite politicians during each election cycle, the Senate also generously increased its maximum allowable hard money exactions from each individual from $20,000 to $37,500 per election cycle. This is, in a way, a perfect illustration of the theory of campaign-finance reform. “Soft money” contributions to parties will be reduced or eliminated, but “hard money” contributions will be allowable in greater amounts than ever. This is a reflection of the view, deeply held among senators, that while “the system” is corrupt, each of them taken singly is incorruptible.

Now, as it happens, the $1,000 limit was set in and has remained unchanged since 1974, when last we had a major overhaul of campaign-finance (the overhaul that would eventually yield the current system, ahem). Surely, if $1,000 was right in 1974, the limit ought to have increased to keep pace with inflation in the years since. That would have more than tripled the amount. But this was too much for some of the specialists in the art of decrying the undue influence of moneyed interest. Hence, $2,000, with automatic indexing for inflation hereafter. It would be cheap and demeaning to the consciences of the 16 who opposed the measure to ask whether they aren’t, after all, pretty glad it passed, and whether the opposition they expressed will extend to continuing to limit themselves to raising money in $1,000 increments. Probably not.

I hold no particular brief for or against campaign-finance reform, for the simple reason that it seems likely to me that the two major political parties in this country are going to find ways to fund their candidates more or less fully under any system, reformed or not. As long as people believe that the stakes in Washington are high, they will spend what they can to exert as much influence as they can.

It does not follow, however, that politicians are for sale. This is a capital whose constitutional scheme was based on the insight that “opposite and rival interest” (in the words of the Federalist) would do more to protect the public interest than reliance on the goodwill of politicians. Yet politicians acting out of particular interests, even well-funded ones, are not the same as corrupt politicians. Rival interests have all sorts of origins, ranging from ideological to partisan to sectional to ethnic to constituent. It is not wrong that loggers have their friends and old-growth forests have different friends. In neither case does the availability of campaign contributions alone create the politicians’ positions.

Senators (and members of the House, too, of course) believe this about themselves. But they also know that the sheer volume of money going into the politics looks bad, and they know they will get nowhere with the public by defending the system. Hence, the convenient fiction of a system that is corrupt but contains no corrupt individuals.

Hence, too, the 84-16 enthusiasm for the increase in the individual limit. Some politicians like to raise money, but most regard it as time-consuming and burdensome, a necessary but unappealing part of the job. Hard money, the stuff of campaign war chests that scare away or obliterate opponents, is what they chiefly need. Soft money is party business – important, but hardly the main event from the point of view of incumbents contemplating reelection. Campaign-finance reform that makes it easier for them to raise their kind of money is their kind of reform.

If you can manage it, you might want to take a moment to feel sorry for the K Street lobbyists and lawyers – you know, the chief villains of this little opera, the ones corruptly foisting their filthy lucre on the politicians they expect to do their bidding. Actually, the politicians call the lobbyists and lawyers. A lot. The politicians all want a piece. And the price of taking that phone call just doubled, to a maximum of $2,000 per call and $37,500 per election.