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Campaign reform crippled by Catch-22
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It's almost August, and we have three more months of it - incessant political television ads in swing states, including Wisconsin, with the objective of swaying those few voters who haven't yet made up their minds.

Hundreds of millions of dollars - billions for the presidential race alone - and new records set every year for campaign spending. I don't watch TV; can't stand it. Although spared that agony, one still resents the disproportionate time spent by candidates and incumbents raising money, and the dumbing down and corrupting effect of money on our political system.

It was bad enough before. But it's now worse with the Supreme Court's "Citizens United" decision that allows unlimited, undisclosed funds to "social service" organizations that don't explicitly urge voting for a particular candidate. There are limits to how much an ordinary stiff can donate to a candidate, and some paperwork needs to accompany it. But a "social service" organization can receive, and spend, unlimited funds without disclosing sources.

The rationale for this secrecy is that the organizations are not pushing for votes for a particular candidate, explicitly, that is. Never mind that anyone with a positive IQ, barely paying attention, can figure out which candidate is being trashed by that "issue ad," and whom that ad favors.

It's a campaign axiom: dominate the dominant media that is television. So what if a few individuals, especially from a low-income district, give a few bucks to their favored candidate? Sure, that candidate will be grateful and cite his/her support by ordinary citizens. But super-pac and social service organizations from outside the district can swamp modest contributions from district citizen supporters, and that money is spent to dominate the radio and television airwaves.

It's not hard to be cynical - or realistic? - and believe that our system of campaign financing is corrupt. If so many people believe it to be corrupt, why hasn't it been changed?

Let's go back to Joseph Heller's novel about a fictitious bomber squadron during the very real WWII. Captain Yosarian's squadron mate, Orr, had flown enough missions that, statistically, he should already have been a dead duck. He didn't want to fly any more missions.

There was a way out. All he had to do was to declare himself insane and request to fly no more missions. But there was one catch - Catch-22. It was perfectly sane not to want to fly any more missions. And besides, no insane person would declare himself insane. Since no insane person would declare himself insane, and it was very sane - the product of a sound mind - to not want to fly any more missions, this person must be sane. He therefore must fly more missions.

Catch-22 has entered the lexicon, exemplifying a problem or situation in which embedded in the apparent solution is a condition ensuring its failure.

The objective of campaign finance reform is reducing the amount of money it takes to run and to enable candidates and elected officials to spend more time on issues and actual legislating, and less time raising money. Why hasn't it happened and why is it not likely to happen?

Let's start with the money. It's an economic truism that for every dollar - er, one hundred million, or billion dollars - spent, someone receives those hundred million, or billion, dollars. Some goes to sign companies, newspapers, radio, pollsters and professional staffers. But most of it goes where? To corporate television for those expensive and incessant ads.

And where do most Americans say they get what passes for "information?" From television, of course, the very medium that benefits most from the existing system of exorbitant campaign spending. To become a major issue, it must be anointed by the corporate television media and trumpeted as a major issue. And since the corporate television media have the most to lose with shorter and less costly campaigns, campaign finance reform will never be anointed as necessary by the corporate media. Inherent in the apparent solution is the condition that ensures that the solution will never materialize - a classic Catch-22.

Can't campaign finance reform arise as an issue independent of assistance by the television media? It's remotely and theoretically possible, but neither plausible nor likely in practice for several reasons. Campaign finance reform is not a popular topic for politicians. Besides, even as they complain about it, politicians got to where they are via the existing system that works to incumbents' advantage. And the more powerful the politicians that have power to set the agenda, the greater their existing power to raise money. Why would they want to give up their fundraising advantage?

Therefore, for politicians to take it up, it would have to be forced by the populace, and demanded of the candidates. And most voters have higher priorities.

Even if there were to be a popular ground swell for campaign finance reform, the television media would cry out for "free speech," aided and abetted by the Supreme Court's decision that amounts to "money is speech," and "corporations are people."

Hey, here's an idea; what about term limits? Forget it. Most candidates elected on the promise of limited terms have a sudden change of heart once elected. And even the politicians who profess to "hate Washington" would run over their grandmother with a dump truck to get there. Once there, they stay, even after resignation or defeat. They now have access to the powerful, know the system, and gain lucrative employment as highly paid lobbyists or consultants. Even if term limits were enacted, the net result would simply be to increase the number of ex-politicians sought as lobbyists.

The only way to close this revolving door, with or without term limits, is for the congress to pass and enforce laws preventing ex-congressmen, senators and staffers to engage in lobbying activities, thereby limiting their own future options and income.

And folks, that ain't gonna happen - can't happen. Why? Catch 22.

- John Waelti's column appears every Friday in the Times. He can be reached at