The Limits of Limits

Our long national nightmare has just begun. There is now little doubt that the next three years will bring one revelation after another about the magnitude of congressional corruption. Democrats will relish this prospect, and “reform” will be an inevitable theme of the next two election cycles. But some political scandals lead to change, while others dominate the headlines for a year and leave no trace. Why? Some of it has to do with managing the media, but it also involves offering credible solutions. Scandals without solutions simply stoke public cynicism. And it is in just such cynical soil that the seed of corrupt big-government “conservatism” was planted.

The challenge, then, is to define the solution. The first bid, from some Republicans and from overly literal Democrats, will be “lobbying reform.” Keeping lobbyists at arm's length should be a matter of personal responsibility on the part of elected officials, reinforced by clear rules. But the idea that the large-scale wrongdoing we've witnessed recently could have been prevented by banning lobbyists from paying for lunch or trips is laughable.

The problem isn't who pays for lunch. It's who pays for politics. Elected officials with enough integrity can skip the meals and trips. But none of them can avoid the lobbyists who control, directly or indirectly, much of the money that pays for elections.

The more far-reaching proposals for reform acknowledge this fact and call for limits on contributions from lobbyists, limits on fund-raisers hosted by lobbyists, and limits on independent political committees. Some of these provisions are wise, some unconstitutional, others easily evaded. And what they have in common is: They are all based on limits.

But limits have reached their own limits. Almost four years after passage of the McCain-Feingold law, its modest limits on soft money and certain issue ads are still contested, or, in the case of political use of the Internet, seem to have spun down a regulatory rabbit hole. Unless the Supreme Court this year decides to uphold a Vermont law imposing mandatory limits on spending -- which would be a surprise -- limits on contributions will coexist with unlimited spending, which inevitably creates further pressure and incentive to find ways around the existing limits. As long as we have a Constitution and capitalism, there will be ways.

Limits address only one side of the relationship between political money and corruption. There's another dimension where there isn't enough money in politics. And that's where the connection to the current scandals is strongest and where real solutions are possible.

* * *

Let's walk this scandal back: as George W. Bush says, there is only one “accountability moment” for an elected official -- Election Day. And for almost all the members of Congress involved in these scandals, that moment passed no differently from any other November Tuesday. Ohio Representative Bob Ney, “Representative #1” in the Jack Abramoff indictment, won his last reelection outspending his opponent $1.4 million to $18,000. John Doolittle of California, another who intervened on behalf of Abramoff clients, spent less than Ney; but his last two opponents combined had only $10,000.

It's on the second number rather than the first that reform must focus. Imagine if Ney's opponent had $500,000 -- enough to hire a research staff and buy some radio ads raising questions about, for example, the odd statements that Ney introduced into the Congressional Record in support of Abramoff's casino-boat franchise. Is it possible that might have wiped a little of the smirk off Ney's face?

The next generation of campaign finance laws has to involve not more limits, but expansive reform that strengthens the voice of challengers and enhances the power of small donors. None of this is fantasy; public-financing systems in Arizona, Maine, New York City, Minnesota, and now Connecticut, though varying greatly in their details, all make it easier to run and be heard.

These systems don't overreach; they don't try to ban all private money, close every loophole, make every election perfectly competitive, or force a constitutional showdown. They aren't rigged to change the partisan balance, either. But all these systems do allow candidates with a broad base of public support from small donors, but without great personal wealth or big-dollar backers, to be heard.

It's easy to waver between total cynicism and overambitious optimism on this issue. Yes, there will always be corrupting influences. But these next-generation reforms might, among other benefits, remind elected officials that they can no longer operate in a zone of silence, confident that their actions will go unchallenged. And that just might force those with power to think twice before abusing it as they did in the current mega-scandal.

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