Nearly a century ago, concerns about the influence of money on politics were mounting. The great industrial trusts of that day were known to wield huge power in the halls of government. Corruption was rampant. In the early years of the 20th century, good-government advocates managed to push through laws prohibiting direct contributions by corporations or unions to campaigns for federal office.
Now, in the closing years of the century, the issue is again hot, and the 2000 presidential election is likely to be a watershed. That race will see unparalleled spending. The multimillion-dollar war chests already amassed guarantee that.
There are definitely two sides to this issue. One side applauds the flow of money into politics as evidence of Americans' involvement in their system of government. Exhibit A is the extraordinary fund-raising success of Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. His $37 million-and-growing campaign nest egg has come from tens of thousands of individuals giving $1,000 or less. Nothing wrong with that, certainly.
But there is something wrong with the country's campaign-funding system. Part of the problem springs from the increased frontloading of the primary-election calendar. This makes early money-raising its own crucial contest, knocking out competitors in advance of any actual voting. Mr. Bush is sweeping this "money primary" on the Republican side.
Another part of what's wrong is illustrated by Bush's decision - a politically understandable one - to forgo federal matching funds. He has so much money he doesn't need them. So the caps applied to those who take such funds won't apply to him (or to multimillionaire candidate Steve Forbes). Thus the reformist idea of a device to limit the influence of money and level the field a bit is kaput this time around.
But the most disturbing problem surfaces when money-raising shifts from relatively small individual contributions to the "party-building" dollars that have in fact become the biggest bucks of politics. Under today's flawed law, corporations, unions, professional associations, and interest groups can pour in these "soft" dollars without limit. So much for the wise reforms of early this century.
Why limit contributions? Because, as Americans have realized at various points in their history, the unfettered flow of money into electoral politics breeds, at worst, official corruption - at best, public cynicism. Suspicions that big contributors are buying access, or even shaping policy, are hard to allay.
Campaign finance reform is a recurring issue in American democracy. It demands fresh attention today, and the logical place to start is a ban on soft-money contributions to parties. Reformers in Congress have been pushing for that, and they're about to renew their efforts. Last year they fell short, thwarted by their inability to muster the votes to end a filibuster by some Senate Republicans.
As the looming presidential race shifts into higher and higher fund-raising gear, the country should realize that regulatory brakes have a vital purpose here - and that the current set doesn't work very well.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society