AFTER dishing out $250,000 worth of fines in two high-profile corruption cases last week, members of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission complained that the campaign-finance system is irreparably damaged. It's time to scrap the whole thing, they argued, and embrace public financing for political campaigns.
They may be right.
To be sure, public financing raises some troubling questions: Would it give too much clout to fringe parties and candidates, or, conversely, would it favor those in power? Is there any way to truly keep money out of politics without violating the First Amendment? And why should taxpayers finance candidates and campaigns they may abhor?
These are all fair objections, and no one claims that "clean money" is the perfect system for funding campaigns. The question is, is it better than the system we have now?
Members of the Ethics Commission sure think so, and it's easy to see why. For years, they have been able to do nothing more than slap the wrists of unscrupulous politicians and special interests for corrupting campaigns. Not surprisingly, that's done very little to make our government more honest.
Even though public pressure periodically forces politicians to tighten up campaign-finance laws, ultimately, laws made by politicians end up favoring politicians. No "campaign-finance reform" measure to date has been worth the paper it was printed on. Full and immediate disclosure of all campaign fundraising would probably help, which is why politicians always find an excuse not to require it by law.
All of which makes a strong case for clean money.
Although few among us like the prospect of our tax dollars paying for political campaigns, the reality is they already do. Politicians trade taxpayer-financed favors to special interests in exchange for campaign cash. And because a few thousand in private campaign donations can end up costing the public millions, public financing of campaigns could possibly save taxpayers a fortune.
Possibly. The devil and the angels are in the details. But one thing that's clear is that the current system isn't working for the benefit of L.A.'s residents. It's time to consider all the alternatives.
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