- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 15, 2009




Money in politics is kindling for scandal. Former Louisiana Democratic Rep. William Jefferson kept bundles of cold campaign cash in a place only the Maytag repairman might find - his freezer. Two current Democratic governors, Rod Blagojevich of Illinois and Bill Richardson of New Mexico, spent their holidays huddled with family, friends and federal prosecutors - sorting through their own pay-to-play probes.

This all contributes to the enduring media narrative: politicians and interest groups that support them are the equivalent of the rent-to-own industry. The late Justin Dart, a politically active corporate CEO, fanned these flames when he said, “Dialogue with politicians is a fine thing, but with money they hear you a little better.” So, here’s my question. Why, after years of repeated scandal and ongoing risk, does our system of campaign finance endure? Why do politicians subject themselves to rules that can put them in the clink?

Answer: There is no better solution short of taxpayer-financed elections or repealing the First Amendment. Plus, the current system creates a sort of Faustian bargain for incumbents: Accept the risks but reap handsome rewards (for example, the Campaign Finance Institute notes that the average incumbent congressional candidate raised $1,275,335 in 2008 compared to $489,696 for challengers). So, until someone proposes something better, politicians muddle through, providing grist for the media and prosecutors, creating bonfires of public cynicism, and certainly continuing to ruin careers.

Lawmakers repeatedly try to fix the problem and fall short. Every time a high-profile scandal occurs (think Watergate; “soft money” abuses during the 1990s; or, more recently, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal) Congress usually legislates from the hip. But its actions also usually produce a legacy of unintended consequences. The most recent attempt to regulate money in politics - the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act (BCRA), also known as McCain-Feingold - pushed financial resources away from national political parties, but spurred the creation of so-called 527 organizations, like MoveOn.org. These more furtive entities lack connections - and therefore, accountability - to elected officials. They’ve become the latest gunslingers in a new Wild West of money in politics.

Yet, beyond unintended consequences, elected officials face even graver threats under our current system - possible career-ending accusations nearly impossible to refute. This is why Congress often passes new rules after every money scandal. But Washington’s reforms usually miss the mark. Here’s an illustration. The following scenario is now not only possible but likely in today’s new world order.

Freshman Congressman X holds a fundraiser this week in Washington to retire his debt from the 2008 campaign. A representative from a renewable energy association attends and brings a $500 check from the organization’s political action committee (PAC). Fast-forward three weeks and the new lawmaker proudly votes “yes” on the Obama administration’s economic stimulus package, his first major contribution to helping America’s economic future.

But after a couple more months and a few clicks of a mouse he looks like a rat, thanks to the wonders of our current campaign finance system. Turns out the renewable energy group that attended his fundraiser “key voted” the stimulus bill, meaning it was a top legislative priority for the organization in 2009. Public records also reveal the energy group’s contribution. So far, so good, right? Not really. Next, a 527 organization that wants to defeat the Congressman in the next election found the same things and just produced a new YouTube ad with a catchy one-word title - “Bribery!” The organization alleges that the congressman voted for the renewable energy provision “just weeks after receiving hundreds of dollars from a Washington lobbyist.” The video goes viral and serves as fodder for local news.

Next come the bloggers demanding a special prosecutor or a House Ethics Committee investigation of the “corrupt congressman” and these “allegations of bribery from special interests.” Welcome to Washington! Freshman philosophy teaches you can’t prove a negative. So, our current system of money in politics puts lawmakers in jeopardy every day. Many believe privately funded campaigns with full disclosure are a better option than taxpayer-financed elections or a system with less transparency. But no model is without flaws or immune from political manipulation. More Americans must understand the potential political, reputational and legal risks elected officials face under our less-than-perfect system and think twice when they hear about the perils of money in politics. And lawmakers need to consider if adjustments are needed for a Faustian political finance system in a hyper-political age.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of Dutko Worldwide.

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