Reform Worth Rescuing

By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, August 18, 2006

We are so accustomed to arguing about the decisions politicians make that we often forget about the importance of non-decisions.

"Non-decision-making" is a wonderful concept introduced many years ago by the political scientists Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz, who spoke of how demands for change "can be suffocated before they are even voiced."

Americans are on the verge of making a non-decision about how we pay for presidential campaigns. If Congress does nothing, a system that succeeded in limiting the impact of special-interest money on elections for our highest office will collapse.

Opponents of campaign finance reform love to claim that the money-in-politics problem is insoluble. But the public financing of presidential campaigns, instituted in response to the Watergate scandals of the early 1970s, was that rare reform that accomplished exactly what it was supposed to achieve.

"I see this presidential financing system as one of the few things you can turn to and say: This was well conceived and it actually worked," said Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who is leading the effort to save the system.

At its core, public financing works because it is based on incentives, not compulsion. As the system stands now, presidential candidates who agree to limit their spending during the primaries -- the limit was roughly $45 million in 2004 -- receive matching public funds for contributions of up to $250.

In a general election, candidates receive a flat amount -- about $75 million in 2004 -- in exchange for not raising any private money. Candidates are thus put on a level playing field and the political system is protected from some of the corruption the chase for campaign dollars can entail.

The plan worked splendidly through most of the 1980s -- conservatives take note: Ronald Reagan and the movement he led prospered under the system, and the presidential big-money scandals of the Watergate years did not reappear.

But inevitably, the system has fallen victim to inflation (the spending limits are now too low) and the multiplication of loopholes, some created by flawed decisions from the Federal Election Commission.

In 2000 George W. Bush refused the federal funds during the Republican primaries because he knew he could raise and spend far more money than the system permitted. In 2004 both Bush and Democrat John Kerry rejected public funds in the primary period, during which they raised about $500 million.

It's only a matter of time before antiquated limits force presidential candidates to forget about public funds altogether. Big blocks of money, which already have too much influence on Congress (do the recent scandals leave much doubt about that?), would now play a major role in presidential elections, too.

It doesn't have to happen. Feingold, along with veteran House reformers Chris Shays (R-Conn.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), has introduced a bill to update the system and make it relevant to today's prices and politics.

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