WASHINGTON -- Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, speaking in the Senate the other day, intoned that there is "too much money in politics."
He was alarmed that 23 Senate Democrats joined Republicans in raising the limits political contributors can contribute to congressional races against self-funding millionaires. Prior to the Senate's vote, federal campaign donations were limited to $2,000 for individual donors. That was how things had been since 1971, when the federal government got into policing campaign donations.
Now those same figures will rise to $6,000 (or as high as $60,000 in "soft" money) so that an ordinary citizen confronted by a John Corzine, who donated $60 million to his own Senate campaign in 2000, will not have to scramble around to put the arm on 30,000 contributors for their possible $2,000 donations. He only needs to accost 10,000. This is the Senate's best effort at, as they say, leveling the playing field.
Sen. Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader from South Dakota, agrees with Dodd. He believes that raising the limit on how much money a political contributor can donate to a political candidate is "going in just the wrong direction."
Well, if these fellows believe there is too much money in politics they ought to look into the arts. There are vast donations made there all the time by very rich people, some claiming anonymity. And look at education. Just the other day a mysterious donor gave Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in NewYork $360 million.
Now both of these abstemious solons have been in politics all their adult lives. They do not know much else. And they have come to believe that the way they got elected was evil. It cost a lot of money, and they raised a lot of money. They also mastered the arcane regulations of the campaign reform movement that has the Federal Election Commission as its police force.
There is irony here. When rich people donate money to the arts or to education or to medicine or to any of the other public-spirited endeavors of the Republic, these senators applaud. But when the money is given to them or to their opponents, they apparently are filled with dread. Ostensibly they fear for their virtue. The donor might pressure them for some sort of assistance. For instance, a giant corporation might give Dodd a large contribution so that he will vote favorably on one of the corporation's projects in his state. That apparently strikes Dodd as "corrupt," to use one of Sen. John McCain's favorite words.
Well, is it corrupt for, say, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California to accept financial support from, say, the Raytheon Corporation and then throw the power of her office behind a Raytheon project to increase its markets or its profitability? As a matter of fact, in 1994 she did just that and loudly criticized her opponent, Rep. Michael Huffington, a multi-millionaire self-financing his campaign, for not helping Raytheon. After accepting Raytheon's financial support, she helped the company in its attempt to sell military electronics systems to Taiwan.
Relax. Feinstein's efforts on behalf of her contributor were perfectly legal. She is not a bad person for accepting money to wage a campaign even if that money came from someone she was in a position to help. Senators are expected to assist local corporations, citizens and organizations, whether they are rich and contribute to them or not.
Since the early 1970s, the entire campaign finance reform movement has been going in the wrong direction, placing financial limits and regulations on ordinary citizens that make it increasingly difficult for them to enter politics. Through it all the Congress has filled with ever more rich individuals who can finance their own campaigns and hire lawyers, accountants and other advisers to get them through the regulations.
In Congress they are joined by ever more lifetime politicians who, like Dodd and Daschle, can work their way from lowly positions on Capitol Hill staffs, acquiring powerful supporters and mastering the arcana of campaign reform so that they can run for high office. As a long list of court decisions has made clear, campaign finance laws themselves are for the most part an infringement on constitutional freedom, namely freedom of speech and freedom of association.
There is only one campaign reform worthy of contemplation -- unlimited campaign donations immediately made public in the media and on the Internet. The electorate can judge for itself if Feinstein is an agent of Raytheon. And, by the way, if she was good for Raytheon, maybe she is good for the electorate.