May 30, 2020

The same politicians who denied Sen. John McCain’s assertions that campaign money influenced congressional votes are now declaring a proposal by Vice President Al Gore unworkable because it cuts off donors’ access to members of Congress. The contradiction shows, first, that they are being less than honest toward Sen. McCain or Vice President Gore and, second, that the vice president’s plan scares them.

Like Maine’s new election fund, the vice president would use a pot of money to finance campaigns of candidates who would not use any other source. And that includes soft money. The Gore plan would create a $7.1 billion endowment through tax-deductible contributions and taxpayer check-offs that would cover general elections. The proposal would leave untouched independent spending on political advocacy, although it would require disclosure of funding sources for those interest groups.

The vice president’s own fund-raising troubles — which, to put is mildly, are a disaster — put him in an awkward position as a reformer, as he acknowledged in announcing the plan. I know I may be an imperfect messenger for this cause, he said. But the real wounds will be to our democracy itself unless we address this problem. He is correct, and his campaign will do the nation a favor if it offers a forum for substantial alternatives to the current campaign-funding system.

Critics of the vice president’s plan – and there are plenty in Congress — raise a serious issue: Why would corporations or special-interest groups donate substantial sums into a fund that might help finance candidates whose views they oppose? Democracy is one thing; a member of Congress you can count on to quietly insert that tax break onto Page 1247 of the latest budget bill quite another. While some contributors hedge their bets and supply funding to both Democrats and Republicans, most are cheering for one side or the other and not the process generally. It is an admission of what sometimes is wrong with the current system, although it does pose a problem for the vice president’s plan.

Certainly, there are alternatives to the funding source in this plan, including the one in Maine’s version. More importantly, with Sen. McCain out of the GOP race, the danger was that the vice president or Gov. George Bush would feel free to ignore the campaign-finance issue. It has now been brought back to center stage.

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