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A better path to campaign-finance reform

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

What began as a well-intentioned effort to deal with the consequences of the miserable Supreme Court decision expanding special-interest influence in election campaigns has turned into a roiling mess for the Democrats. There is a better way.

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Here's what's happened: In January, the court, in a 5 to 4 decision, discovered new rights for corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums on their own ads supporting or opposing federal candidates. The extension of First Amendment privileges to these groups, which historically had been barred from using their treasury funds in politics, threatens to inundate campaigns with outside cash.

Rather than attack the decision directly, which would require a constitutional amendment, President Obama has thrown his support behind legislation that would impose strong publicity requirements on those exploiting it. They would have to disclose the names of significant donors and give their personal endorsement to their ads.

Many of the affected nonprofit groups protested, but none was more adamant than the National Rifle Association. Its threat to work against anyone supporting the bill, when added to the GOP opposition, was more than the Democrats could overcome. So Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, managing the bill, rose above principle and crafted an exemption for the NRA -- one that would, incidentally, also exempt AARP.

All hell broke loose. Some liberals denounced the kowtow to the NRA while others joined Van Hollen in saying this is the best we can get. When the heat got too hot, Van Hollen maneuvered again, this time enlarging the group that would benefit from the carve-out, by applying it to organizations with 500,000 members, rather than 1 million. Disclosure was sacrificed for votes. And once again House Democrats are about to try to pass the bill.

Congress could do better than enacting a measure that sets one rule for the Friends of the Earth and a looser standard for the NRA. Michael Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, argues for abandoning the regulatory response to the Supreme Court decision in favor of an empowerment strategy.

Malbin favors disclosure, but given the contortions that have been required in the search for votes in Congress, he argues for a new approach.

As the Obama campaign showed, the Internet has created a potential for massive funding of campaigns by small contributors. There aren't many Obamas, but other candidates can be motivated to seek out such contributors through legislation providing public matching funds for small contributions.

Malbin's model is the New York City system, with a 6-to-1 match for the first $175 of any contribution, making it worth $1,225 to the candidate.

With that kind of payoff, he says, candidates would have every reason to go after small contributors -- and pay less attention to the fat cats. And with a flood of such "clean" money, the dollars that corporations and unions decide to spend in the game would become relatively less important.

It is not a complete solution, but it does take the government out of the tricky business of establishing one set of rules for some groups and exempting others from those same requirements.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois has introduced legislation to create this kind of matching system for small contributions, financed by a small surtax on government contracts. So far it has gone nowhere.

This Supreme Court has shown its hostility toward even long-established campaign finance regulations that it believes infringe on the free expression of political views. But nobody can object to measures designed to encourage voluntary small contributions as a form of political participation.

In some future Congress, this should be the approach. Then we won't have spectacles like the one unfolding in the House this week.

davidbroder@washpost.com



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