Magazine article The American Prospect

The Limits of Limits

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Limits of Limits

Article excerpt

OUR LONG NATIONAL NIGHTMARE HAS JUST BEGUN. There is now little doubt that the next three years will bring one revelation after another about the magnitude of congressional corruption. Democrats will relish this prospect, and "reform" will be an inevitable theme of the next two election cycles. But some political scandals lead to change, while others dominate the headlines for a year and leave no trace. Why? Some of it has to do with managing the media, but it also involves offering credible solutions. Scandals without solutions simply stoke public cynicism. And it is in just such cynical soil that the seed of corrupt big-government "conservatism" was planted.

The challenge, then, is to define the solution. The first bid, from some Republicans and from overly literal Democrats, will be "lobbying reform." Keeping lobbyists at arm's length should be a matter of personal responsibility on the part of elected officials, reinforced by clear rules. But the idea that the large-scale wrongdoing we've witnessed recently could have been prevented by banning lobbyists from paying for lunch or trips is laughable.

The problem isn't who pays for lunch. It's who pays for politics. Elected officials with enough integrity can skip the meals and trips. But none of them can avoid the lobbyists who control, directly or indirectly, much of the money that pays for elections.

The more far-reaching proposals for reform acknowledge this fact and call for limits on contributions from lobbyists, limits on fund-raisers hosted by lobbyists, and limits on independent political committees. Some of these provisions are wise, some unconstitutional, others easily evaded. And what they have in common is: They are all based on limits.

But limits have reached their own limits its. Almost four years after passage of the McCain-Feingold law, its modest limits on soft money and certain issue ads are still contested, or, in the case of political use of the Internet, seem to have spun down a regulatory rabbit hole. Unless the Supreme Court this year decides to uphold a Vermont law imposing mandatory limits on spending--which would be a surprise--limits on contributions will coexist with unlimited spending, which inevitably creates further pressure and incentive to find ways around the existing limits. As long as we have a Constitution and capitalism, there will be ways.

Limits address only one side of the relationship between political money and corruption. …

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