Election 2008 finally lays bare campaign finance mess

Sen. Barack Obama received a lot of flack for withdrawing from public financing for the general election, and rightfully so.

His change of heart on campaign financing highlighted why we hate politicians who always find ways around the rules to benefit themselves.

However, these things don't happen in a vacuum.

The recent reports filed with the Federal Election Commission from Sen. John McCain and his various "Victory Committees" point out why Obama did what he did.

Federal law says you can only give $2,300 to any presidential candidate for the general election. But McCain's campaign has found a loophole that allows them to take donations up to $70,000, by splitting them up among his Victory committees and the Republican National Committee.

So while Obama was collecting hundreds of thousands of small donations averaging only $68 apiece, the McCain camp was picking up huge checks from the usual suspects hoping to get another president in the White House who will do their bidding.

When you add up all the money between the campaigns and the national parties, McCain already has more money than Obama, and that doesn't count the $85 million in taxpayer funds he gets after the GOP convention next month.

And let's not forget the way that McCain gamed the system during the primaries. He opted into the public financing system long enough to secure a loan to save his faltering campaign, and then opted out so he could get around the spending limits. McCain could face felony charges for this action if the hopelessly ineffective FEC ever gets around to prosecuting him.

It's ironic that McCain's past efforts to reform campaign finance and get rid of the big-money influence seekers is what has made his political career, and led him to be the GOP nominee for president.

Obama is hoping his online fundraising operation will more than make up the difference with his opponent, even without using taxpayer money. And he argues that his legion of small donors is in a way more democratic and less corrupting than what McCain is doing.

In a way, he's right. But this is not the way we should be financing campaigns.

Even with McCain's much-touted campaign finance reforms, it remains a system of legalized bribery. Donors who write big checks expect to get something back, whether it's simple access, tax breaks or no-bid contracts. Then you have the bundlers who collect lots of big checks and expect even more.

Many people have floated the idea of having the government finance campaigns. I just don't think this is a good way to go. First off, the government doesn't have any money left to spend, thanks to the dilettantes managing the nation's bank accounts these last seven years.

But more than that, any kind of public financing scheme would most likely benefit the Washington inside players, to the detriment of independents and third parties. I don't think that is a good direction to go.

One idea I thought would help curb the corruption is to make all donations anonymous, at least to the candidate. The funds could flow into an independent collection operation that would track who gave money and how much. Then the money would be sent to the candidates, who would have no idea how much anyone gave.

How would this help? Well, if you don't know who gave you the bribe (or how much they gave), then it's hard to pay off the briber. Any Regular Joe could walk up to a politician and claim he donated a couple of grand, and expect something in return.

Or maybe we could follow the Obama example and just limit the amount anyone could give to $100, thus allowing even people of lesser means a way to participate. Will a politician bother to pay off on a $100 bribe?

Maybe this election will lay bare enough of the problems with campaign finance that the next Congress will be forced to make changes.

And maybe the Chicago Cubs will win the World Series this year. Sometimes dreams do come true.

- Kirk Caraway writes for Swift Communications, Inc. He can be reached through his blog at http://kirkcaraway.com.


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