- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2001

The pardon of Marc Rich has not improved the public's estimation of Bill Clinton. His otherwise inexplicable act of clemency raises the suspicion that he was repaying a favor to Rich's ex-wife Denise for all the money she has given to Democratic causes. But John McCain says the president's motives are not really important, because the real villain is our campaign-finance system.

“It's the most graphic example of why we need campaign-finance reform,” McCain said recently. “Maybe the president had the purest of motives. But the appearance here is devastating. It's so clear and so pervasive: Money buys access, and access is influence. Everybody knows that.”

His case is easy to make. Over the last decade, Denise Rich has showered more than a million dollars on various Democratic recipients, including the Clintons. That generosity may very well have earned her some chits at the White House. With the end of the Clinton presidency looming, she further endeared herself with the first family by donating $450,000 for the Clinton presidential library in Arkansas.

Did Rich have reason to hope that, in return, the president would grant her a wish? You'll have to judge that for yourself. Invited to testify before a House committee last week, Rich excused herself on the grounds that any testimony might tend to incriminate her. But as Bill Clinton used to say, if you see a turtle on a fence post, you know it didn't get there by accident.

No one wants to see presidential pardons auctioned off to politically connected bigwigs, and McCain offers his campaign-finance reform bill as a way to prevent such things from happening — or from even the “appearance” of happening. His measure, which stands a good chance of being passed by Congress, would ban all “soft money” contributions to national political party committees, of the sort given by Denise Rich. Get rid of the soft money, McCain suggests, and donors would no longer be able to buy favors.

As McCain paints the disciplined world of the future, the wealthy would be limited to the same austere regime as everyone else — allowed to give no more than $1,000 per election to any one candidate, and no more than $30,000 per year for all candidates. Since those amounts are too low to purchase access or influence, our leaders would at last be free to resolve all issues on their merits.

Nice theory. But it's hard to picture Mrs. Rich sitting at home weeping bitter tears because she can no longer use her money to help Democrats and earn the gratitude of powerful people. In fact, even under the McCain-Feingold measure, she could easily find ways to keep doing just that — as wealthy people have managed to do for as long as campaign reformers have been trying to stop them.

The obvious way to get around a soft money ban is an “independent expenditure” to help a candidate or hurt a candidate's opponent. Instead of giving money directly to a candidate or a party that would be used to buy TV ads in a campaign, Rich could make and broadcast ads on her own.

The Supreme Court says such expenditures can't be limited, for the simple reason that they amount to an exercise of free speech rights. Putting a ceiling on them, the court said, is not permissible because it “reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached.” (All the McCain-Feingold bill would do is impose new disclosure requirements, and those may not pass constitutional muster.)

Spending money on her own campaign to help a candidate, rather than giving the money to the candidate's party, eliminates the direct link between benefactor and beneficiary, but so what? If candidates will sell favors to someone making big soft money donations, why wouldn't they sell favors to someone making large independent expenditures? McCain's plan would only redirect the money — it wouldn't banish it.

Nor could it, because money is indispensable to communication in a society that relies on mass media. In modern politics, as the Supreme Court has stressed, you can't restrict spending without cutting down on the amount of communication about elections. And contrary to what you might assume from listening to McCain, speech about the virtues and shortcomings of people running for office is not a bad thing, but a good thing.

It's an unfortunate fact of life that the presence of money in politics can lead to corrupt relationships between donors and politicians. But in light of what has been alleged about Rich and Clinton, it's safe to assume that those who want to buy influence and those who want to sell it will always find a way.

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