As we await with bated breath and crossed fingers congressional passage of the first meaningful campaign finance reform bill since Watergate, I just can't shake this scene from the future that keeps popping into my head. (I may not be the oracle from Delphi, but I am Greek.)
It's late spring. President Bush has just reluctantly signed into law the ban on soft money, and the supporters of reform have gathered for a victory celebration at the Monocle, a famous watering hole on Capitol Hill. Crowded into a corner booth, savoring their historic achievement, are the heroes of the bitter political battle: John McCain, Russ Feingold, Chris Shays and Marty Meehan. Glasses are raised. High-spirited toasts are made. To fighting the good fight. To the death of soft money. To restoring integrity to public life. Someone even raises a good-natured glass to über anti-reformer Mitch McConnell.
Suddenly, the smile disappears from McCain's face. "All right," he says, echoing Robert Redford's famous final line in "The Candidate," "what do we do now?" The thudding sound of reality collectively setting in fills the bar. The designated driver has sobered everyone up.
Because, as McCain told me after the historic House vote: "This bill will only thwart the special interests for so long. Twenty years from now, they will have figured out ways to get around it, and another couple of senators will be fighting to break the endless cycle of corruption and reform."
But even before the lobbyists and the lawyers start ferreting out the new loopholes like pigs snorting for truffles -- and it will take them a lot less than 20 years -- the ban on soft money is far from the end of the overwhelming influence of money on our campaigns. The fact is, soft money donations made up less than 20 percent of the nearly $3 billion spent on the last round of federal elections, while hard money donations totaled roughly $1.75 billion.
In the meantime, politicians from both parties are tripping over themselves in a desperate stampede to cash in before soft money goes the way of DDT, the Dalkon Shield and the Pinto. The fundraisers are revving up their Rolodexes and putting out the call to fat-cat donors across the land: "Gentlemen, start your checkbooks!"
The next few months will see a Nero-esque orgy of political fundraising, featuring money soft, hard and in-between. Leading the revels at the big-buck bacchanal are the president and the vice president, each slated to be the main draw at, on average, two fundraisers a week, playing more dates than Steve and Edie.
But the juiciest morsel of bait in the Republican tackle box is Rudy Giuliani who, in a particularly distasteful example of cashing in on Sept. 11, this week headlined a fundraiser for House Republicans touted as a "Salute to America's Heroes." So here is Rudy trading in his Sept. 11 halo for an enormous deposit in his personal favor bank, which he can cash out whenever he decides to make his next political move. To paraphrase Todd Beamer: Let's bankroll!
And while most of the debate on campaign finance reform has focused on the problem of public policy being sold to the highest bidder, the exorbitant cost of funding modern campaigns has also led to an ever-shrinking pool of potential candidates, as fewer and fewer quality individuals are drawn to run for public office. As it currently stands, only the super rich or those willing to spend their every waking moment raising money from the super rich need apply.
The California gubernatorial primary provides a striking example of this trend. On the Republican side, the race came down to a battle between self-made millionaire Richard Riordan and trust-fund millionaire Bill Simon. The victorious Simon will now take on Democratic fundraising machine Gray Davis, whose principal achievement in office has been raising over $30 million. His almost inevitable reelection will only make his obsessive-compulsive fundraising disorder more contagious.
So what, indeed, do we do next?
Well, we need to work on many fronts at once. We should immediately fortify the notoriously toothless Federal Election Commission with some real enforcement bite. And we should demand that broadcasters -- who, after all, are making massive profits using the public airwaves -- offer political candidates free TV time. In 1997, in an example of everything that's wrong with Washington, Congress simply gave away the digital spectrum to the broadcasters -- a little gift now worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Asking them to help clean up our political system seems a small price to pay in return. Take away the absurd cost of political ads -- the single greatest cost of almost all modern campaigns -- and you take away one of the main reasons to fundraise in the first place.
Ultimately, though, the only way to dramatically diminish the corrupting influence of special interest money is by adopting the "clean money, clean election" model, which replaces the nonstop money-grab with full public financing of elections. Think of it: No hard money, no soft money, no endless dialing for dollars, no quid pro dough deals. Just candidates and elected officials beholden to no one but the voters.
And this is no pie-in-the-sky fantasy. Clean-money laws in states like Maine and Arizona have proven remarkably effective: reducing campaign spending, shrinking the influence of outside money and encouraging more -- and better -- people to run.
So, back at the Monocle, McCain and company need to finish their celebratory drinks, pat each other on the back, settle the check and gird themselves to join the fight anew. The toughest battles for reform lie ahead.