With New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's decision to withdraw as a Cabinet nominee in the face of a federal investigation of a lucrative state contract given to a major political donor, the term "pay to play" is back in the news. In the Richardson case, the focus is on whether $100,000 in political donations can buy a company a $1.5 million bond consulting contract.
But the problem of pay to play is much broader than municipal bonds. The allegations against Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich represent the extreme - a brazen bidding war for a seat in the U.S. Senate. There are laws against such obvious quid pro quo, but what about the more subtle transactions?
It happens every day, political donors buying access to power and profits in the nation's 50 state capitals. Campaign finance rules in Maryland, like most states, give contractors plenty of opportunities to donate lots of money to candidates , either directly or indirectly (through subsidiary limited liability corporations for instance). How often do the names behind the winning contract bids - top executives, their employees or lobbyists - show up on campaign finance reports? The better question is how often do they not? Even the politician who does no favors is tainted by a system that can easily accommodate corruption.
There are any number of half-remedies. States can tighten contracting rules, and Maryland has adopted those kinds of reforms. There are limits on political donations - but clever lawyers and operatives always seem to find new loopholes.
What's needed is a chance for political candidates to get off this favor-go-round ride entirely. Maryland and other states need to offer public campaign financing and give office-seekers a chance to wage campaigns without going hat in hand to those who do business with the state. That might not guarantee scandal-free state government, but it would raise the chances of it.