The Washington Times

The spectacular collapse of campaign-finance reform in the House this month, with the speaker actually losing control of the floor, obscured something important, namely, that some form of the legislation continues to get closer to passage.

It’s an underappreciated fact of Washington life that success, in the form of legislative enactment (we will leave aside the question of whether the legislation enacted is any good), is often a product of multiple failures. This is the process by which majorities are forged. Legislation is more often than not about inertial momentum, and a series of defeats over the course of a number of years is one of the ways such momentum gathers.

In the case of campaign-finance reform, the backdrop is the current system, which is unlovely to most Americans. The impression of politicians for sale to moneyed interests, a corrupt system in which money determines access and influence, is deeply ingrained among ordinary Americans. Thus calls for “reform” resonate with public opinion. In any case, one incurs no political cost in terms of public opinion by promoting reform.

On the other hand, the resonance with public opinion is a very low buzz. People simply don’t regard campaign-finance reform as a pressing issue. Consistently, it barely shows up in polls asking people to rank issues of importance to them. I think there’s a simple reason for this: The more thoroughly you are convinced that the system is corrupt, the less likely you are to think anything can be done about it. The same politicians who brought you the current system are really going to clean things up? How likely is that?

A low-level buzz is enough, however, to keep the issue alive. Next come calculations of political interest. For years, campaign-finance reform, and in particular the ban on soft-money contributions, was mainly a Democratic Party project (though the sponsorship of the legislation to do away with soft money has always been bipartisan). Democrats stood on the principle that soft-money contributions had undermined previous efforts to restrict the influence of money in politics. Republicans stood on the principle that restrictions on soft money amounted to an infringement of the right of freedom of speech. Principle aside, the fact was that Republicans were raising a lot more soft money than Democrats.

I always thought (and have argued here) that that imbalance was a major roadblock for reformers. It transformed the issue, in the minds of many of the players, into an up-or-down vote on political survival. Republicans got their advantage here the old-fashioned way: They earned it. Why would they surrender it || particularly if Democrats were going to continue to enjoy the largely unrestricted assistance of labor unions?

But then something very interesting happened. Democrats started closing the soft-money gap. Stories began appearing in the papers about how Democratic fund-raisers were no longer shy about asking their wealthy sympathizers for six-figure contributions. What we have now is a condition in which both parties are essentially fully funded. Sure, ask either one if it could use more contributions, and the answer is going to be yes. But the reality is that each has the resources to do what it thinks it needs to win elections.

This is the circumstance in which “reform” seems more likely, and indeed, in which it has gone farther than ever. Needless to say, the shifting financial fortunes of the parties has brought with it a round of second thoughts. Some Democrats who once enthusiastically voted for reform chiefly to tweak GOP defenders of Big Money || in the knowledge that reform would not pass || now approach the possibility of success with trepidation. The GOP, because of its larger donor base, outraises Democrats in hard money. This, in turn, becomes a selling point for Republicans (although most remain unpersuaded).

Step by step, then, the cost of failing to support some kind of campaign- finance reform legislation rises, and the cost of supporting it declines. That’s inertial momentum. And more often than not, the result in the end is legislation that lands on the president’s desk. There, it may be vetoed. But again, the statute books are full of legislation that was vetoed once or more before it was signed.

I don’t mean to suggest that there is anything inevitable about the eventual enactment of campaign finance reform. Sometimes, inertial momentum slows, then dissipates altogether. A budget in surplus effectively ended the push for a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced budget. But it’s hard to get things done in Washington without inertial momentum, as the trouble President Bush’s energy proposal is in demonstrates: There was an issue that came up relatively suddenly || too suddenly.

In the case of campaign-finance reform, the momentum is still gathering, notwithstanding defeat yet again.