The tide may be turning against years of effort to restrict the influence of money in federal elections.
Will President Obama – who surfed to an election victory on a towering wave of campaign donations – be able to hold back the threatening tide?
One potential setback is beyond his control. The Supreme Court will likely decide in its next term whether to alter more than a century of restrictions on corporate campaign-finance activity in federal elections.
But the president can influence other key issues, if he can summon the political will. So far, he hasn't shown much.
In his run for president, for instance, Mr. Obama promised to rely on public financing in the general election. The limited funding is meant to act as a brake on spending and donor influence – and put candidates on equal financial footing.
But Obama reneged, becoming the first general election candidate to refuse public funding. He raised record private donations and had a huge war-chest advantage over Republican John McCain, who accepted the $84 million limit of public money.
As a candidate, Obama said he would reform public financing for campaigns. Its limits are outdated compared to modern spending levels. But he has yet to unveil a plan or react to a bipartisan draft bill by Sen. Russell Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, and Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine.
It's politically tricky for this king of fundraising, because if he moves to overhaul public financing, he'll be morally obligated to abide by its limits for the 2012 election, presuming he runs. If he lets this issue languish, he'll attract ridicule for an empty promise to "change Washington."
His nominee for one of the FEC positions is being sat on by none other than the champions of campaign-finance reform – Senators McCain and Feingold.
The senators are upset with the FEC's pattern of gridlock in the last year. By law, three Republicans and three Democrats sit on the commission, but deep partisanship and opposing philosophies about campaign-finance restrictions have prevented them from reaching majority decisions. As a result, the FEC has been largely unable to enforce penalties or to write long-awaited rules required by Congress.
The FEC is "mired in anti-enforcement gridlock," the two senators said in a recent statement. "The president must nominate new commissioners with a demonstrated commitment to the existence and enforcement of the campaign finance laws."
Obama's nominee – Democratic union lawyer John Sullivan – hardly inspires confidence for the job. Mr. Sullivan has argued strenuously against parts of the McCain-Feingold 2002 law that banned unlimited "soft" donations. It is Sullivan's nomination that the two senators are holding hostage until Obama nominates credible enforcers for two other positions.
Obama should heed the senators' warning. Beyond that, he should move not only to reform public financing, but the FEC itself. The commission is a poor watchdog, far too influenced by politics. In practice, the Senate leadership recommends nominees to the president, who then makes the official nominations and kicks them back to the Senate for a vote. Both branches have a vested interest in a stationary, do-little enforcer: a lap dog to party interests, rather than a pit bull for the public interest.
An advisory group of distinguished Republicans and Democrats who support the enforcement of campaign-finance laws should recommend nominees to the president – a change being pushed by a coalition of reform groups.
Obama campaigned on doing things differently in Washington, and specifically on beefing up campaign-finance reform. He shouldn't wimp out on this one.