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Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Quid Pro Quo Analysis Obscures the Big Picture

Virginia is one of fourteen states that have no limits on individual contributions to political candidates, and one of four (along with Illinois, New Mexico, and Oregon) that have absolutely no restrictions on any contributions from individuals or organizations to political candidates. Not surprisingly, this indulgent atmosphere has given wealthy folks a chance to spend their way not just into the hearts and minds of Virginia's politicians, but into the living rooms and kitchens of households across Virginia.

As The Virginia-Pilot reports, big donors have given six-figure donations to politicians in both parties, including $325,000 from a Tennessee pharmaceutical millionaire to Jerry Kilgore, a candidate for governor in 2006.

Whether white-tower wonk or regular Joe, it's easy to get caught up thinking that these rich folks' big bucks are going to buy them access or favorable legislation or a choice contract once their candidate gets into office. Corruption like that certainly exists, as it has for centuries.

However, focusing on this aspect of the problem of money in politics obscures a deeper rooted problem in our elections - whether it's a few super-huge contributions from the billionaire's club, or a hundred plain ol' huge contributions from a bunch of millionaires, when we allow candidates to build up huge campaign warchests without earning the support of the people first, we corrupt the democratic process. Not only do big bucks buy these pols access and legitimacy in the media without having to interact with the public at large, their piles of money scare off many potential candidates who might be (much) better at the job.

The Pilot piece calls for contribution limits to fix the problem as it seems to see it - the buying of access by rich folks. Contribution limits are probably part of the solution, but as the recent McCain-Feingold Act shows, when you misdefine the problem, you run the risk of making things worse. Reform efforts should not focus just on what happens once a politician gets into office, but also the process that got him or her there.

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