Senator Barack Obama's $25 million "call" yesterday qualifies him for another round at the presidential poker table. But the $129 million total pot raised by all the presidential candidates in the first quarter illustrates how morally and politically bankrupt the game is.Candidates bow down to big contributors, often with bad results for the general public when those candidates win. Beyond that, they spend far too much time chasing dollars and not talking with citizens or advancing the policies they have promised.
Do contributions corrupt policy? Few would answer no. Just this week, the Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency should be regulating greenhouse gas emissions. Candidate George Bush promised in 2000 to have the EPA do just that -- and the voters were pleased. But President Bush reversed himself a year later, putting such emissions off-limits for the EPA. Big oil and other corporate interests, which had contributed heavily to Bush's campaign, were more than pleased by the change ; they took it to the bank. Six years were lost in the fight against global warming.
As for the time spent fund-raising, officeholders complain more and more frequently, and with good reason. Just consider: Suppose a presidential candidate could raise $1,000 with a two -minute phone call, consistently. To raise $25 million in three months, he or she would have to stay on the phone for 50,000 minutes or -- assuming an eight -hour day (no lunch), a seven -day week, and no rejections -- 104 days. But wait: there were only 90 days in the first quarter. The point is clear: the current system exhausts as it corrupts.
The most sensible alternative is public financing, which was successful in presidential campaigns for three elections after Watergate, but has slid into disuse as candidates' budgets have ballooned. It is too late to enact reforms for the 2008 election, but a coordinated effort should be mounted to reclaim these campaigns, and candidates, for the people in 2012.
Meanwhile, the good news out of Congress is that support is growing for public financing for congressional elections. Two Senate powerhouses, majority whip Dick Durbin of Illinois and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, have filed legislation for a voluntary system in which small contributions would be matched with public money. A similar proposal in the House, filed for 10 years by Representative John Tierney of Salem, is suddenly enjoying growing support. Both proposals are patterned after the successful Clean Elections systems in Maine and Arizona.
Voters pay for elections one way or another. Better that the price should be from tax dollars than corrupt policies and wasted officeholders.
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