Those bulging campaign coffers

America's midterm elections this year are a study in the wrong superlatives. Can negative ads get any worse? And what of the millions of dollars to pay for them? Campaign spending is setting a record for any midterm election – up 18 percent from 2002.

The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics estimates that total campaign spending on federal races this year will be $2.6 billion. The growth beats the rate of inflation since the last nonpresidential election, and seems to fly in the face of campaign-finance reform, which took effect following the 2002 midterms.

It's important to make this distinction, though: The concern is less the total amount of money shelled out and far more its possible corrupting influence on the winners.

We're speaking proportionally here, of course. One has to lament the ever higher amounts a congressional candidate must spend in order to win a race (at least $1 million to win a House seat, and millions more for the Senate). But the greater concern of campaign-finance reformers has always been those politicians who are wide open to donor influence due to unlimited contributions (called "soft money").

In the 2002 election cycle, just before the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act went into effect, about half of the money raised by the national committees of the two political parties was soft money – the majority arriving in $100,000 batches from corporations, wealthy individuals, and unions. The reform act outlawed soft-money donations, allowing only limited, though increased, contributions.

This has forced the parties to turn much more to individual donors. As of the end of September, small donations of $200 or less accounted for nearly 40 percent of funds raised by the national committees of both parties. That's a significant improvement over 2002 in terms of empowering average Americans and a dramatic change in reducing the potential for big-money influence. Much money, mostly corporate, has actually exited the fundraising system.

There are other, completely legal ways for corporations, rich folks, and unions to throw their weight around. These include political action committees (or PACs) and nonprofit organizations, known as "527" groups. But while spending by PACs and by 527s is up compared with 2002, the increase is not extraordinary. This midterm is also the most financially competitive. At least in many of the close races, challengers actually have the cash to compete.

Still, several trends are worrisome. Incumbents generally maintain a competition-discouraging advantage in the size of campaign chests (4-to-1 in the Senate; 7-to-2 in the House). Also, the Federal Election Commission is handling more complaints from employees who say they're being coerced to donate to corporate PACs, and unions still use dues for political contributions despite some members' wishes not to.

And as recent high-profile scandals show, lawmakers can still be influenced by money-toting lobbyists and donors. The new Congress must be vigilant about transparency and other reforms.

But it does appear that fundraising in 2006 is less hospitable to big-money influence – a message that's easily overlooked in yet another record-setting spending cycle.

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