Public Financing Can Smash Wall of Money

061206 article wiseguys jpb  Public Financing Can  Smash Wall of MoneyAfter Congress passed a set of weak lobbying reforms following the Jack Abramoff scandal, Senator John McCain said, “The good news is there will be more indictments, and we will be revisiting the issue.” Meanwhile, the best way to rein in the army of 34,000 lobbyists in Washington was urged by John Edwards and Dick Gephardt in 2004 and by Representatives Barney Frank and David Obey today: public financing of all Senate and House races.

Campaign-finance reform is as old as one of Herblock’s first cartoons about the subject, published in 1932, five years before Senator McCain was born. Sixty years later, in 1992, money’s grip on Congress was so secure that even Hollywood caught on. In The Distinguished Gentleman, Eddie Murphy plays a con man named Thomas Jefferson Johnson who gets himself elected to Congress. After Johnson lands a plum committee assignment, a slick trick from Gucci Gulch named Terry Corrigan (played by Kevin McCarthy) refers to the post as “the honey pot.” Money pours in from lobbyists on both sides of issues. “How can anything be done?” the Johnson character wonders. “It doesn’t,” Corrigan answers. “That’s the beauty of the system!”

Then came Tom DeLay’s K Street Project in 1995, purging Democratic lobbyists while raising lots of Republican cash. The number of lobbyists exploded from 9,000 to 34,000, with a similar increase in earmarks. By 2004, lobbyists were so ubiquitous that The Washington Post hired Jeffrey K. Birnbaum as the paper’s first lobbying reporter. More recently, the paper’s campaign-finance specialist, Thomas B. Edsall, described how 69 lobbyists have served as treasurers for the campaign committees or leadership P.A.C.’s of members of Congress.

In early January, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich unleashed a blunt jeremiad about the influence of lobbyists and money, saying that Washington was “building a wall of money to protect itself from America.” Following Mr. Gingrich’s speech, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist called for reforms. Then realities prevailed. Messrs. Birnbaum and Edsall reported that members of Congress returned from a two-week break determined to pass a weak reform package because they heard little about the issue from voters.

As a result, reform meant more disclosures about contacts between Congress and K Street, more reports on gifts or contributions, but not bans on them. “That will be a little bit of a nuisance, but we’ll do it,” a lobbyist told Mr. Birnbaum.

Public financing of Presidential campaigns has helped level the playing field—three sitting Presidents, who usually have an enormous fund-raising advantage, have been defeated since 1976. The Presidential system began as a response to Watergate. Today’s lobbying scandals may yet inspire taxpayer-funded Congressional races, free from special-interest money. But it will take time. The soft-money caps in the McCain-Feingold law came seven years after then–Speaker Newt Gingrich and then–President Bill Clinton pledged reform with their “Claremont handshake” deal in New Hampshire.

House incumbents protected by partisan gerrymanders will strongly resist public financing because of the aid it would give to challengers. Even many Senators would rather debate themselves by raising money, granting “access” to K Street pleaders, even “tweaking” bills with niche breaks for backers in the name of “economic development.”

Meanwhile, three states show the way on public financing: Arizona, Maine and Vermont. These states have more competitive races and more citizens involved in them. Arizona offers up to $1 million in taxpayer funds for statewide races if they meet certain criteria. “Surprise, surprise!” said Senator McCain. “I’m spending more time talking to voters, not contributors.”

Under Maine’s Clean Election Law of 1998, candidates get modest public funds by collecting a maximum of $5 from all their backers. While this is “somewhat labor-intensive,” wrote state legislators Glenn Curtis, a Democrat, and Ed Youngblood, a Republican, “we enjoyed the fact that it caused us to spend more time in people’s living rooms, rather than on the phone, chasing down checks from lobbyists.”

One in four Maine state legislators is going clean; costs have plummeted; races have been more competitive; and incumbency has lost its juggernaut force. “Best of all,” wrote Messrs. Curtis and Youngblood, lobbyists have stopped hassling “clean” lawmakers, making it “easier to get through the Capitol’s halls in time for a vote.”

Cheaper and more-contested races, more citizens participating as $5 donors, lawmakers unmolested by lobbyists en route to doing the people’s business—how’s that for representative democracy?