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A Step in the Right Direction

Jason H. Wasfy

Those of us who are concerned about the influence of big money in politics have seen two welcome developments during President Bush’s first 100 days. Bush resisted one of those developments, but he deserves credit for the other.

What we should praise Bush for is the new sense of ethical responsibility that he has brought to the White House. In the days following the inauguration, when we all thought we heard the last of the awful corruption that tainted the Clinton administration, news reports began to bubble out that Clinton had pardoned international criminal fugitive Marc Rich. Although Rich had been fleeing justice abroad for some time, a hefty sum paid to former White House council Jack Quinn and a helpful word from Rich’s ex-wife -- a major Democratic Party donor who donated generously to Clinton’s presidential library -- were enough to gain Clinton’s sympathy.

I don’t think that we’ll see any more of this. Pardons won’t be for sale in the Bush administration because Bush brings to his office an emphasis on integrity that Clinton sorely lacked. And in any case, the vocal outrage from Republicans and Democrats alike about the Rich pardon will likely ensure that chief executives will be careful about selling pardons for some time to come.

But trading pardons for cash isn’t the only problem with big money in government today. Our campaign finance system is riddled with loopholes for wealthy people, unions, and big corporations to influence the democratic process, and Bush has been less than enthusiastic about meaningful reform.

Meaningful reform is precisely what the McCain-Feingold bill promises -- including a ban on unregulated soft money. In the past, the bill had faltered in the Senate because of filibusters, which require only 40 senators to maintain. But in the 2000 election, a few senators hostile to reform lost their seats and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) thrust his support behind the reform bill over the winter. John McCain and Russ Feingold were finally able to navigate reform through the Senate’s complicated parliamentary process. That’s the good news.

Although Bush hasn’t ruled out signing McCain-Feingold if it ever passes the House and arrives at his desk, it’s safe to say that he’s not fond of the bill. The Republican Party elders who designated Bush as their favorite for the party’s presidential nomination last spring are dead set against the bill. And the big donors that supported Bush’s campaign throughout don’t want to lose their ability to sway elections.

The key to achieving real reform over the next 100 days and beyond will depend on some of Bush’s natural allies -- conservatives that want to strengthen our democratic system, people concerned about labor unions spending their members’ dues on political activities that many of those members would oppose, and Republican lawmakers who are just sick and tired of raising money when they could be talking about issues. How much leverage those groups and others have over the president’s thinking will determine the fate of campaign finance reform.

Bush’s first 100 days have signaled the end of illegal and improper fundraising by the Clinton/Gore team. The next important challenge that reform advocates now face is to convince the new administration that better laws separating big money from political decisions are the best choice both for George W. Bush and for the nation.