The election year hasn't even begun, but the nation's political system is
already awash in record amounts of money, much of it spent to buy influence.
In other times, this would have evoked outrage. But candidates have grown so
dependent on the money that all but a few stand mute — afraid to push the
obvious remedy, public financing of elections. So perhaps it's worth pausing to
note some of the reasons that the idea makes sense, even if it's getting no
attention from the major presidential contenders. Here are five:
* Wealth test.
Both parties acknowledge that in recruiting
candidates for congressional races, a major criterion is whether the
prospect is rich enough to personally finance a campaign. That smells of
reserving public office for the elite.
* Dialing for dollars. Members of Congress complain
repeatedly that running for re-election is so costly that they have to spend
up to one-third of their time "dialing for dollars." For challengers, it's
* Fat cats. Despite all the stories about an
Internet-powered rise in small contributors,
21% of all presidential campaign contributions have been in donations of
$200 or less, little change from previous years. Meanwhile,
contributions are up 91% from donors linked to the securities and
investment industries, 68% from the entertainment industry, and 47% from
* Shady bundlers. The power of "bundlers," power
brokers who aggregate individual donations into giant packages, continues to
grow. Hillary Clinton
has been embarrassed twice by such operators, one indicted on business
There is an alternative already adopted by seven states. It's called
clean elections, or clean-money campaigning. Pioneered in Maine a decade
ago, it lets candidates accept public financing in return for a promise not
to take private contributions beyond a required threshold sum of small
The result is more time for candidates to talk with the voters; more
women, minorities and middle-class candidates seeking office; and fewer
campaign-finance transactions that look like thinly disguised bribes.
Clean election systems cost from $2 to $6 per year for each voting-age
resident, a bargain for trimming costly special-interest influence. In North
Carolina, for example, the clean-election option has virtually ended an
outrageous special-interest bidding war for seats on the state's top courts.
But in Washington, a clean-election plan for Congress is buried (Barack
Obama and Dennis Kucinich are the only presidential candidates listed as
sponsors), and the presidential campaign fund is woefully outdated.
As in state and local politics across the country, reform will only
happen when citizens demand it. What's missing is a high-profile champion
willing to lead the charge.