Campaign finance reform: R.I.P?


For four decades, advocates for stricter campaign finance rules have been on a long, slow march to make big money in politics less important and more transparent.

Now, in 2010, they are seeing the results: Never in modern political history has there been so much secret money gushing into an American election.

By Election Day, independent groups will have aired more than $200 million worth of campaign ads using cash that can’t be traced back to its original source, predicts Fred Wertheimer, president of the non-profit group Democracy 21.

“And this is just the beginning,” Wertheimer said. “Unless we get some changes here to mitigate this problem, I would expect we will see $500 million or more in 2012.”

For Wertheimer, and the other lobbyists, lawyers and academics who push for tougher campaign cash restrictions and often refer to themselves as “the reform community,” this year’s election is not merely a disappointment.

There have been plenty of those in the years since their movement took off amid the abuses of the Nixon era. But always in the past reformers have been able to keep faith that, whatever setbacks they faced, their cause was on a gradual path to victory.

This year feels more like a repudiation of their lives’ work. And it has raised two basic questions that strike at the very core of the ethos of the campaign-finance reform effort: Can the flow of money into elections be limited if the courts have deemed political giving and spending a First Amendment right? Can any system of rules to make money more transparent ever keep up with the legal devices that powerful interests use to keep their influence hidden?

“This is a low point for the campaign finance reform movement – I’ve never seen it lower,” said Craig Holman, a leading campaign finance lobbyist for Public Citizen, a non-profit group that has played a role in most major legal and legislative fights on the issue since the Watergate scandal of the mid-1970s.

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