When you have presidential candidates raising enough money to pay off a small country's debt, even the best-intentioned campaign will inadvertently accept a check from a donor with a questionable past.
Before we start throwing stones at any one candidate, we need to understand how our campaign-finance system and modern fund-raising demands allowed the Clinton team, arguably the most organized and disciplined campaign in the race, to accept $850,000 from a tainted donor.
The Clinton campaign claims it runs standard background checks on all major donors. In the case of Norman Hsu — a major fund-raiser found to be a fugitive for a 1991 felony grand theft conviction in California — campaign organizers ran at least two computer searches that failed to reveal a 15-year-old warrant against him. The campaign took appropriate steps to screen its donor base and, in this instance, those steps failed. The searches did not include the two middle names the relatively unknown Hsu used in the California case. As Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson explained to The Washington Post: "In all of these searches, the campaign used the name Norman Hsu, which, like the search results of other committees and campaigns, did not turn up disqualifying information."
In what will most likely become common practice for all campaigns, the Clinton team says it will now begin conducting criminal background investigations of major donors, including its bundlers or those who raise and collect large sums of campaign cash. This may force other leading candidates to take a hard look at their own war chests to ensure their money is taint-free. This expensive task will add to the price tag of campaigning for the nation's top public office.
Running for president or Congress has become very costly due to the exploding costs of media buys and the hiring of political professionals. The more costly the campaign, the more the field of candidates is limited to those who can pay the multimillion-dollar entry fee. It's too bad that this new standard that the Clinton team will adopt may become an unnecessary financial burden on other candidates with far fewer resources than the current Democratic front-runner. Poorly funded candidates certainly do not need another roadblock in their attempts to run. If anything, the country yearns for fresh faces, bold leadership and people willing to do what's necessary to make our lives better.
We need more candidates, not fewer.
Yes, campaigns, public watchdog groups and the media should continue to closely scrutinize big campaign contributors. And, yes, to help expose fraud, corruption and hidden agendas, Congress should consider stricter rules for big bundlers of campaign contributions. Ultimately, though, the only true remedy lies in addressing the root cause of the problem: Political races have become far too expensive and require campaigns to raise far too much money, some of which — because of the sheer number of contributors — will inevitably come from tainted sources.
The best answer: Repair the nation's presidential public-financing system, which, heretofore, has served the public well since its introduction in 1974. By offering a government match on the private contributions candidates raised in exchange for voluntary spending limits, the program relieved the fund-raising arms race, decreased the opportunities for influence buying and encouraged more competitive campaigns.
And it worked. Since 1976, all the winning presidential candidates — two Democrats and three Republicans — used the system for the general election, with challengers beating incumbents in three of the six races. And every winning presidential candidate except President George W. Bush also opted into the system for the primary campaign.
Unfortunately, it doesn't work anymore. Largely unchanged since 1974, the primary- and general-election spending limits and the amount of public money available to candidates have not kept pace with today's out-of-control cost of running an election campaign. As a result, candidates without major fund-raising capacity have, understandably, started opting out.
Legislation proposed in both the House and the Senate would retrofit the program for today's campaigns. The bills would increase the primary- and general-election spending limits, offer a more generous public match for small individual contributions raised during the primary season, make funding available earlier in the primary season, and raise the spending limits for candidates whose opponents choose not to adhere to the limits. The expansion would be funded by an increase in the voluntary contribution we can make when we file our tax returns, from $3 to $10.
That's a small price to pay for democracy.