Monday, August 11, 2008

Is Campaign Finance Reform Possible?

You can't have an election without a campaign finance outrage, can you? Last election cycle, the outrage was 527's. This time, it's bundlers.

Ah, the good old days, when bundlers supported G.W. and were given cute names like "rangers" or "pioneers". Then some people bundled for Edwards and were called... criminal suspects. (Oh, I know... I'm assuming that some straw donations collected by Bush's bundlers were conveniently overlooked, and I should instead assume the purest of motives and methods....) Now McCain has a bundling scandal, and the New York Times is calling for reform.
Last week, The Washington Post disclosed that Harry Sargeant III, a prominent McCain booster in Florida and part owner of an oil-trading company with business in Iraq, had rounded up thousands of dollars in small donations from Americans of Middle Eastern origin. Many had not made political contributions before, and were of relatively modest means. The Times followed with a report that at least $50,000 of this had been solicited from a single extended family in California, the Abdullahs, by one of Mr. Sargeant’s business partners, a Jordanian named Mustafa Abu Naba’a.

Though it is unclear whether any of this is illegal — including whether the law forbids foreigners from soliciting contributions — the McCain campaign hurriedly announced that it was returning the money raised by Mr. Abu Naba’a. It also promised to review the money raised so far - about $500,000 - by Mr. Sargeant.
What can we assume about bundlers? If they were solely interested in raising money for a candidate, they wouldn't have to stick themselves in the middle - between the donor and the candidate. It's reasonable to assume that they expect something, whether it's a starry-eyed wish for a photo op with a newly elected President, some form of quid pro quo somewhere down the line, or something in between.

The Times looks at the situation and notes that neither candidate wants to come clean about their bundlers. Obama apparently comes closer, and "is sponsoring legislation that would require disclosure of all bundlers who raise more than $50,000." The fact that McCain isn't all over that reform suggests how important bundlers are to his fund-raising, and how important it is to some of his bundlers that their names not be made public.

The Times continues, "That could be a useful addition to the law, but it is not enough." Right. Why not have complete transparency, and require full disclosure about all bundlers? No, that's too logical a direction to take.
What is really needed is an overhaul of the public financing system for presidential campaigns, which has not kept pace with the actual costs of running for office.
Here's a sad truth: the public financing system can't keep pace with the "actual costs" of running for office. No matter how much money you toss into the system, it's just a matter of time before one candidate or the other, perhaps both, find it inadequate.

You want to complain about increasing college tuition costs? Colleges have nothing on political campaigns. Or even gas prices. I have the following (unverified) figures for the cost of the winner's campaign in the last few Presidential races:
  • 1996 - $141.3 million (Clinton) out of $449 million total.

  • 2000 - $256.4 million (Bush) out of $649.5 million total.

  • 2004 - $457 million (Bush) out of $1,016.5 million total.
This election cycle looks like another bank breaker. Can you really expect public financing to keep up with that?

At this point, I think we need to be pushing for maximum transparency. It won't fix the system, but at least we'll get a sense of who's trying to buy the candidates favor.

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