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We Should Be Told Before We Cast Vote

Wed., Sept. 24, 1997

All you need to know about campaign finance reform is that the politicians who say they want it have built their careers on clever exploitation of the status quo. In other words, it’s just talk.

President Clinton, to name only one example of the political establishment’s capacity for pretense in this matter, said he’ll call a special session if the Senate ducks a vote this year on finance reform. But Democrats and Republicans have radically different definitions of reform. So, after some showy debate, votes and veto threats, the odds are that nothing will change.

Why would anything change? After all, Americans seem nearly as cynical about campaign finance reform as their leaders do. Public opinion still gives high approval ratings to Clinton, who won re-election after brazenly renting out the Lincoln Bedroom to fat-cat contributors. And this week, as the Justice Department began to investigate fund-raising via White House telephones, Clinton felt free to claim that even though he can’t remember what he did, he’s sure it complied with “the letter of the law.”

Good grief. Just don’t ask him about the spirit of the law.

In fact, the letter of the law has not been much of a deterrent. Little wonder. Campaign finance law is (a.) confusing and (b.) written by lawmakers who appreciate confusion because it leaves room for loopholes and manipulation.

There’s a river of money that flows from Americans to their politicians. When reformers drop a boulder in the river, the water flows around it. Campaigns are so costly, and the desire to influence them is so intense, that the only question is how to get around the rules.

Certainly, rules are needed. But rather than trying in vain to stop the cash, reformers ought to work harder at exposing it, in a timely fashion, so that voters before the elections can see who’s being bought by whom. Computers could help make this possible. Databases can be analyzed rapidly these days, and the Internet makes distribution of data more possible than ever before.

Americans are cynical about campaign finances because they sense, rightly, that influence buying is widespread. But much of the activity, such as the cash that pours into negative campaign ads by third-party interest groups, has been difficult to track.

A free country can’t stop political gifts without limiting freedom itself. But as much of the giving as possible ought to be disclosed, in detail, before we vote.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Webster/For the editorial board

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