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Buying elections

The Baltimore Sun

Last month, Sen. Barack Obama took in an amazing $150 million in campaign contributions - a number that increased his fundraising total to $600 million for the primaries and general election, topping the combined amount raised by President Bush and Democrat John Kerry in 2004. It's an extraordinary achievement, but one that offers sad evidence of the futility of a decades-long effort to limit the influence of money in American politics.

Sen. John McCain, Mr. Obama's Republican opponent, chose to participate in the public financing program, which gave him $84 million to spend from Sept. 1 to Election Day. In return, he agreed not to accept private contributions. That decision, and Mr. Obama's choice to back out of a promise to do the same, left the Democratic candidate with a 4-to-1 spending advantage in the final month of the campaign. With that imbalance, it's hard to imagine why any future candidates would opt for public financing, as it is organized.

That prospect underscores the need for the next Congress to pass meaningful reforms that would more effectively curtail the influence of deep-pocket special interests that give more to get more access to elected officials.

Mr. Obama's success at raising a significant proportion of his campaign funds from millions of small contributors on the Internet suggests one possible path of reform. If much larger spending limits that reflect the costs of running a modern presidential campaign were established and candidates were given substantial matching funds for each small contribution from a supporter, the influence of large campaign donors and bundlers who gather vast sums from groups of wealthy supporters could be significantly offset by the cumulative contribution of the small givers.

One of the latest schemes to get around contribution limits benefited Senator Obama. Campaign operatives established committees to accept large contributions to the Democratic Party that would be spent on the candidate's behalf. Outlawing that practice also should be debated.

But the courts have made clear in recent years that political parties and other independent organizations can spend as much as they want on behalf of candidates, so long as they do it independently. That means there's no way now that you can control spending. With that in mind, some reform advocates are proposing rules requiring that all donors to the parties, campaigns and independent advocacy groups be clearly identified. Transparency - knowing just who is giving and how much - advances good government.

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama's ability to attract contributions from more than 3 million supporters and the primary losses this year of other well-funded candidates, Republicans and Democrats, should encourage reformers concerned about the baleful influence of big bucks from fat cats. Ideas and character can still matter more than money when Americans are choosing their leaders.

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