Despite some embarrassing last-minute parliamentary flapdoodle on the part of the madame at the campaign finance bordello--Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)--it is time to write the obituary for the soft money era.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has promised to hold an all-night pajama party to thwart any filibuster, and the signs are that the president will, reluctantly, sign the campaign finance reform bill.
In the meantime, politicians from both parties are tripping over themselves in a desperate stampede to cash in before soft money goes the way of DDT, Dalkon Shields and the Pinto. The fund-raisers are revving up their Rolodexes and putting out the call to fat cat donors across the land: "Gentlemen, start your checkbooks!" The next few months--the law would take effect Nov. 6--will see a Neroesque orgy of political fund-raising, featuring money soft, hard and in between.
Leading the big-buck bacchanal are the president and vice president, who each are slated to be the main draw at, on average, two fund-raisers a week--playing more dates than Steve and Eydie.
But the juiciest morsel of bait in the Republican tackle box is former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who, in a particularly distasteful example of cashing in on the Sept. 11 attacks, this week headlined a fund-raiser for House Republicans touted as a "Salute to America's Heroes." So here is Rudy trading in his Sept. 11 halo for an enormous deposit in his personal favor bank, which he can cash out whenever he decides to make his next political move.
To paraphrase Todd Beamer: Let's bankroll!
And while most of the debate on campaign finance reform has focused on the problem of public policy being sold to the highest bidder, the exorbitant cost of funding modern campaigns also has led to an ever-shrinking pool of potential candidates, as fewer and fewer quality people run for public office. As it stands, only the super rich or those willing to spend their every waking moment begging for money from the super rich need apply.
The California gubernatorial primary provides a striking example. On the Republican side, the race came down to a battle between self-made millionaire Richard Riordan and trust fund millionaire Bill Simon.
The victorious Simon will now take on Democratic fund-raising machine Gray Davis, whose principal achievement in office has been raising more than $30 million. His almost inevitable reelection will only make his obsessive-compulsive fund-raising disorder more contagious.
Of course, the ban on soft money is far from the end of the overwhelming influence of money on our campaigns.
Soft money donations made up less than 20% of the nearly $3 billion spent on the last round of federal elections.
And, as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told me after the historic House vote, "This bill will only thwart the special interests for so long. Twenty years from now, they will have figured out ways to get around it, and another couple of senators will be fighting to break the endless cycle of corruption and reform."
But long before the lobbyists and the lawyers start ferreting out the new loopholes like pigs snorting for truffles--and it will take a lot less than 20 years--the question remains: What should be done next?
Many things. We should immediately fortify the notoriously toothless Federal Election Commission with some real enforcement bite.
And we should demand that broadcasters--who, after all, are making massive profits using the public airwaves--offer political candidates free TV time.
Ultimately, though, the only way to dramatically diminish the corrupting influence of special-interest money is by adopting the "Clean Money, Clean Election" model, which replaces the nonstop money-grab with full public financing of elections.
Think of it: No hard money, no soft money, no endless dialing for dollars, no quid pro dough deals. Just candidates and elected officials beholden to no one but the voters.
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times