Stop Them Before They Reform Again

032002, story, campaign finance reform,soft money, senate vote JM
This commentary was written by's Dick Meyer.

I am a reformed reformer.

I used to believe that political institutions and practices could be substantially improved, if not quite perfected, by intentional, deliberate human intervention.

I used to believe that something called campaign finance reform could make elections more honest, leading to better legislators and better laws.

I spent much of my time as a working reporter looking into the finances of elections, lobbying and dirty tricks, and I believed that was a socially useful activity.

I don't believe in much of that anymore.

But like a die-hard fan of a perpetual loser (the Chicago Bears, for example), I actually don't give up hope even when I swear off it. Yes, I am a recovering political idealist trying to be immune to the temptations of demon reform. But it doesn't quite work. I still secretly hope for a win. I like politics and politicians.

That's why it is so nauseating to watch the current reform charade.

The insincerity of it is appalling and it is blatantly transparent. The Republicans are trying to use so-called lobbying reform as P.R. stunt to mitigate the effects of a scandal; the Democrats are trying to make the scandal worse for the Republicans. And we're supposed to believe that Congress will make good medicine from these greasy ingredients? Right.

This episode of Reform Theater is a classic public relations sleight of hand trick designed to take your eye off what's really important. In this case, the pseudo-reformers want you to think the problem is fancy dinners and beach vacations. They want you to look at "reforms" that would ban trips and gifts from lobbyists, add more disclosure rules for lobbyists and extend the period members and staffers must wait before they can lobby from one year to two.

That can only mean one thing: the politicians don't care about those things and they don't want the stuff they do care about to be touched.

Members of Congress care most about keeping their jobs and getting reelected.

None of these new reforms touch the election system that allows about 98 percent of all incumbents to be reelected year after year. And none of these reforms touch a legislative process that makes it relatively easy to give favors to the interests that finance that election system in darkness and secrecy. That is legal and fully institutionalized corruption.

Members don't care if their staffers and colleagues have to wait two years before they can come back as lobbyists. They don't care if lobbyists have to fill out a bunch of disclosure forms that no one will look at, except perhaps, enemy consultants looking for dirt. They don't even care if they have to forego some steak dinners and golf junkets if it means they can keep their jobs and other perks.

But guess what? Lobbyists and moneyed interests could still give members trips and treats even if these lobbying reforms passed. They would just be called campaign donations, not gifts.

Under the reforms now being proposed, Lobbyist Sleaze couldn't take Senator Bag to the Super Bowl as a gift, but he could take Candidate Bag there for a campaign fundraiser. Senator John McCain, whose commitment to reform hasn't wavered over all these years, says he can fix this flaw. Perhaps.

But every reform involving politics and money in the last 40 years has had loopholes. And sometimes those loopholes — the famous unintended consequences — were worse than the problems they were supposed to fix.

The post-Watergate reforms did make it harder for a single company or fat-cat to buy off a congressman, but they created the current mess that has turned all elected officials into full-time fundraisers and governing into a form of permanent campaigning.