Absent changes, big money in campaigns will only grow

It was eight years ago that George W. Bush's ability to raise $36 million in just six months shattered all fundraising records and made him the front-runner before the presidential campaign even really began.

The poor chap wouldn't have survived more than a few weeks in 2008. Barack Obama raised $66 million – in August alone.

The presidential candidates raised $1.6 billion this year, an unimaginable amount even one election ago. And Obama's broken promise to take public financing as long as John McCain did leaves the public financing system in tatters. Without significant reforms, it's probable that McCain has become the last major presidential candidate to accept the dollars and the limitations that system provides.

Obama and the Democratic Congress need to make campaign finance reform a high priority, even with other major issues on their plate. Democrats, ironically, have always been more inclined to push campaign spending limits, but are divided now that Obama is the beneficiary of unlimited spending.

The public financing system was designed in 1974 to bring parity among the candidates' bank accounts and lessen their reliance on special interests. That was supposed to make the key criteria for office a candidate's ideas and character, not his ability to raise gobs of money. The system never eliminated the influence of big money on politics. But with the public financing system eviscerated, the potential for corruption is that much greater.

Let it be noted that Obama created a fundraising model never before seen: built largely on an endless network of small donors. We're not worried about the corrupting influence of regular voters who give $20 over the Internet. In fact, we need more campaigns built that way, not fewer.

The real concern is the influence big givers can have in a campaign and afterward. New and expanding loopholes allowed both Obama and McCain to raise up to $70,000 from some individuals, through joint fundraising committees between the candidates and their parties. That money was divvied up among the federal and state parties, who then spent it on Obama's and McCain's behalf.

The Supreme Court has ruled some outright spending limits unconstitutional, but not measures regulating political money. Congress should pass a law banning the joint fundraising committees. It should also pass rules that make it clearer who the “bundlers” are for each candidate and how much each is raising. It also needs to consider raising the amount of money a candidate can receive when abiding by the public limitations.

The bigger problem is that big-money donors have found new loopholes around every other reform, and will be looking for new ones again. Political money is like some killer virus – it just keeps on adapting and evolving, staying one step ahead of each vaccine.