USA Today, October 27, 2004


Trying to control the flow of money corrupting politics is a lot like trying to contain flooding on the Mississippi. Dikes can channel the torrent. But when there's a downpour, the river will keep on coming, breaking through at the point of least resistance.

So it has gone in this presidential campaign. The walls erected by the last set of political engineers, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., will largely have achieved their purpose: slowing the flow of illegal contributions -- sometimes seven-figure checks -- to political parties. But by the time the last vote is counted, a record $3.9 billion will have been showered on this year's campaigns for president and Congress, delivered through diverted means.

That number, projected last Thursday by the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan monitoring group, is up 30% from four years ago. And that's conservative. Lax disclosure rules mask the scale of special-interest involvement.

What are beleaguered taxpayers to do? No doubt, they'll pay plenty when the recipients of that cash repay with government largesse.

Putting more dams in the river isn't going to help. Donors intent on buying influence can always find new legal channels. Candidates, lacking any other way to make their campaigns competitive, will take what's offered. In fact, they're forced to grovel for it.

There is a better option: Give honest candidates an alternative and, at the same time, expose the gifts taken by the rest.

Four states -- Maine, Arizona, Vermont and North Carolina -- already are offering the "clean money" option of public financing to candidates for some state offices. New Jersey will launch a similar program next year, and New Mexico in 2006.

This works. In Maine, where the movement started, nearly 80% of this year's legislature candidates rejected private money.

Defenders of the status quo deride public financing as welfare for politicians. Catchy. But also hooey. Even the highest estimate of the cost of Maine-style public financing at the federal level is only $10 per taxpayer -- trivial compared with the cost of payoffs to special interests.

As for disclosure, the current system is a carefully constructed mirage.

All contributions over $200 to presidential and congressional candidates and national party committees must be disclosed. But reporting runs weeks or months late. Voters may not find out until after an election. Further, many non-profit groups with their own parallel campaigns don't have to report at all.

* The states' approach also avoids the problem inherent in all attempts to limit political donations: They undercut free speech.

Donations often pay for campaign commercials by candidates or independent groups. Can any government arbiter be trusted to say who can speak and how loudly -- particularly if that speech is unpopular? Certainly not the Federal Election Commission, which tries to do the job now. Virtually every independent political observer agrees that its members are chosen by Congress to be ineffective. And if they were effective, free-speech problems would quickly sprout.

Giving candidates a chance to be honest and voters a way to watch the rest is a better option. It won't stop the flood of corrupt money. No system can. But it would protect voters and taxpayers far better than the patchwork system of levees in place now.