Candidates bungle with bundlers

Bundlers who dive for campaign dollars pose a problem for presidential campaigns.

In 2000, presidential candidate George W. Bush was a pioneer with his "pioneers" – fundraisers whose haul totaled $100,000 or more. Now Hillary Clinton has her army of "HillRaisers" and Rudy Giuliani his roster of "pitchers," "sluggers," and "captains." This fundraising trend poses a danger to campaign integrity.

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with vigorously shaking the money tree. Contributions indicate candidate support, as the campaigns are now showing with third-quarter financial results.

The questions are always how money is raised, and whether there exists the potential for corruption and influence-buying.

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Such dangers prompted campaign-finance reform in 2002, which banned unlimited contributions to parties, or "soft money."

Just as water runs downhill, so candidates seek new ways to raise money. The latest trend of "bundling" limited contributions together needs greater scrutiny, especially in this new Wild West era in which most presidential hopefuls are abandoning underfunded public financing and its spending limits.

The media have reported several examples of bungled bundling. The most egregious is the case of California fundraiser Norman Hsu, a Democratic bundler for Hillary Clinton. He now sits in jail on an unrelated state grand-theft charge to which he once pleaded no contest. Federal authorities are now investigating his financial dealings. Sen. Clinton plans to return the $850,000 he raised, some of it from people who didn't even know Mr. Hsu.

Other candidates have run into problematic bundlers. The Obama campaign gave to charity $40,000 collected from a benefactor indicted on corruption charges. The Edwards campaign will return the personal portion of $80,000 which William Lerach contributed and raised from family and law-firm partners. He pleaded guilty last month to conspiracy. And until recently, Republican Mitt Romney's bundlers included Alan Fabian, who faces multiple fraud and other charges.

Beyond the integrity of some fundraisers is the reward they might expect from candidates they support. The potential for influence-buying increases when major fundraisers (called bundlers or not) take up posts in an administration or lobby in Washington.

A new ethics law requires members of Congress, political parties, and presidential candidates to report lobbyists who bundle and their totals to the Federal Election Commission. That sunlight allows media and watchdog groups to keep an eye out. But lobbyists aren't the only bundlers, and the law must be expanded. That politicians turn to lobbyists at all for fundraising is questionable.

The bundling issue raises another concern: the drift away from public financing. This post-Watergate reform was to reduce the potential for influence-buying, put candidates on a more equal financial footing, and relieve them of the pressure to constantly raise funds. It has mostly worked for three decades and is the norm in European democracies (which run blessedly short campaigns).

But the current public-finance program doesn't work today, largely because it hasn't kept pace with costs. One way to keep Hsu-type bundling in check is to pass a more far-reaching bundling reform. The other is to update public financing so candidates don't have to seek bundlers in the first place.

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