Jacob Sullum

Rep. John Murtha called the Lobbying Transparency Act "total crap." Then the Pennsylvania Democrat voted for it, along with 381 of his colleagues, many of them equally afraid of appearing to oppose transparency.

Rep. James Moran, D-Va., who also joined the majority, worried that the bill, which requires lobbyists to disclose the campaign contributions they gather for politicians, would make fund raising harder. "I don't know what we're supposed to do," he said, "except cold call all the people in the phone book in our districts."

There's something to be said for making members of Congress spend their days begging for money over the phone, which might teach them humility and keep them out of trouble. But the Lobbying Transparency Act won't accomplish that goal, or much of anything aside from perpetuating the illusion that a political system free from the corrupting influence of money is just one reform away.

As usual, the latest campaign finance reform, a version of which the Senate approved in January, is aimed at a "loophole" created by previous campaign finance reforms. In 1974 Congress capped individual contributions to candidates at $1,000 per election. That restriction encouraged people who might otherwise have given more than $1,000 to solicit contributions from others instead.

Such "bundling" got another boost from the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), which banned "soft money," unrestricted contributions that ostensibly supported general party-building efforts but in practice helped elect candidates. At the same time, BCRA doubled the maximum individual contribution per candidate and indexed it to inflation.

The results were soon clear. In the 2000 presidential election, the Bush campaign outraged advocates of tighter financial restrictions by enlisting "Pioneers," supporters who raised at least $100,000 in bundled contributions. In the 2004 election, after BCRA took effect, the Bush campaign added a new category, "Rangers," for bundlers who solicited donations totaling at least $200,000.

So what have three decades of campaign finance reform accomplished? It's doubtful that a supporter who writes a single check for $200,000 exercises more influence over a politician than a supporter who collects 100 checks totaling $200,000.

In light of this reality, the Lobbying Transparency Act requires registered lobbyists to report the money they solicit on a candidate's behalf as well as their direct contributions. But it does not prohibit bundling, and it does not apply to most bundlers.


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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