Funding is Poisoning Our Elections

Former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour made a cocky, well-rehearsed appearance Thursday before the Senate committee investigating campaign finance abuses. It may well have weakened the Democratic case that both parties are equally guilty of engaging in questionable and possibly illegal fund-raising among foreign donors.

The first three weeks of hearings have fallen well short of producing evidence that buttresses the melodramatic opening statement of committee Chairman Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) that the Chinese government had illegally conspired to influence U.S. elections. But they have given even neutral observers reason to conclude that the Democrats have considerably more to explain when it comes to fund-raising from prohibited sources during the last election.

Yet those same observers cannot avoid noting that the Senate hearings to date are merely patrolling the margins of campaign finance abuses in the 1996 elections. Yes, by all means, let’s prosecute those who appear to have violated laws prohibiting foreign donations and conduits. And if there is hard evidence that high-ranking public or party officials directed, encouraged, knowingly countenanced such illegal behavior or allowed such contributions to affect the public’s business, the Senate should painstakingly put that evidence on record and work to hold such officials politically and legally accountable.

But let’s not pretend to be shocked that a foreign government would try to affect the course of American politics and policy. The alleged investment of $2 million by China to influence the 1996 elections is laughable – a rounding error in the more than $2 billion spent by candidates, parties and independent groups.

Ours is a highly permeable political system, one in which foreign governments and companies are legally entitled to hire lobbyists, finance grass-roots campaigns to advance their legislative interests, host American politicians on fact-finding trips in their home countries, mobilize support among American citizens and resident aliens with strong family ties to their countries and contribute to nonprofit educational and public policy organizations.

About the only restriction is that they are prohibited from contributing to candidates or to others for the purpose of influencing our elections. Countless countries take full advantage of these opportunities, often following public relations strategies fashioned by their American consultants. Some, like Taiwan, are legendary for their skill in currying favor among American politicians.

I suppose it is possible that some Chinese officials were naive enough to imagine they could become players by channeling illegal contributions (totaling $2 million) to candidates for federal office. If so, I trust they have been disabused of such nonsensical thinking. And the United States would clearly be justified in conveying its displeasure to China over such inappropriate behavior. But let us keep it in perspective.

The same argument holds for the investigation of those who may have solicited foreign donations. From the evidence that has surfaced at this stage of the Senate hearings, the committee is focusing its attention on less than one quarter of one percent of the funds raised and spent in the 1996 elections.

It is possible that our laws governing contributions by foreign nationals, including resident aliens and domestic subsidiaries of foreign companies, will have to be changed as a result of the experience of this last election cycle. But I doubt it. Probably it’s more important to put in place effective mechanisms to ensure compliance with existing law, taking steps to see that the punishment of this cycle’s violators becomes a disincentive to others who might consider such behavior in the future and reducing the demand for foreign funds by eliminating so-called soft money—contributions to political parties rather than directly to candidates.

Having tended to these “foreign” threats, I hope the Senate committee will turn its attention to the real problem under its purview—the utter collapse of the federal regulatory system governing campaign finance. The simple but devastating fact is that federal laws fashioned to limit the role of big money in American elections have been undermined by an explosion of soft money and issue advocacy. Money from corporate and union treasuries and unlimited contributions from individuals once again is flowing to candidates and parties and is being spent directly to influence the outcome of federal elections.

In 1996, public and party officials brazenly pressed corporate officials and wealthy individuals for six and seven-figure contributions and then spent those dollars to advance their political interests under the guise of issue advertising.

Our election system is careening out of control—not because of some foreign menace or explicit violations of law at home—but because our campaign finance system has been gamed to near death. Let’s hope the Senate committee gets around to diagnosing the real malady and prescribing a cure.