Mon, 15 Dec 2003

Money, politics and opposition to Bush

George Soros, Chairman Soros Fund Management Open Society Institute, Project Syndicate

Money and its role in American politics is a subject of constant debate. Despite many attempts at reform, the funds spent on U.S. national elections grow every time voters go to the polls. Many believe that essentially unlimited private money favors the Republicans. Billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, a proponent of reform, has been accused of hypocrisy because of his large financial contributions in connection with the upcoming presidential election. In this article, Soros explains his reasons, and his views on the subject of money in politics.

I and a number of other wealthy Americans are contributing millions of dollars to grass-roots organizations engaged in the 2004 presidential election. We are deeply concerned with the direction in which the Bush administration is taking the United States and the world.

If Americans reject the president's policies at the polls, America can write off the Bush Doctrine as a temporary aberration and resume its rightful place in the world. If American voters endorse those policies, the U.S. shall have to live with the hostility of the world and endure a vicious cycle of escalating violence.

In this effort, I have committed US$10 million to "America Coming Together, (ACT)" a grass-roots get-out-the-vote operation, and $2.5 million to the " Voter Fund," a popular Internet advocacy group that is airing advertisements to highlight the administration's misdeeds. This is a pittance in comparison with money raised and spent by U.S. conservative groups.

Rather than a debate on the issues, there's been a lot of name-calling about my donations by such groups as the Republican National Committee and the National Rifle Association. In an attempt to taint the groups I support and intimidate other donors, they imply that my contributions are illegitimate or that I have somehow broken the law.

In fact, I have scrupulously abided by both the letter and the spirit of the law. Both "America Coming Together" and the " Voter Fund" are organizations that, according to a specific reference in the U.S. tax code are entitled to receive unlimited contributions from individuals. Both groups are fully transparent about their motives and activities. Both file detailed and frequent reports with government regulators.

America's most recent campaign finance law attempts to limit the influence that special interests can gain by financing candidates and so level the playing field between the Republican and Democratic parties. My contributions are made in that spirit.

President Bush has a huge fundraising advantage because he has figured out a clever way to raise money. He relies on donors he calls "Pioneers," who collect $100,000 apiece in campaign contributions in increments that fall within the legal limit of $2,000 that any individual can give, and on those he calls "Rangers," who collect at least $200,000.

Many of these Pioneers and Rangers are corporate officials who are well situated to raise funds from their business associates, bundle them together and pass them along with tracking numbers to ensure proper "credit" to each individual donor of $2,000. Thus they are buying the same level of access and influence for their corporate interests that they previously obtained with their own and corporate funds. With the help of these Pioneers and Rangers, President Bush is on track to collect $200 million.

To counter the fundraising advantage obtained by this strategy, I have contributed to independent organizations that by law are forbidden to coordinate their activities with the political parties or candidates. That law minimizes or eliminates the ability to purchase influence in exchange for my contribution. Moreover, I don't seek such influence. My contributions are made in what I believe to be the common interest. ACT is working to register voters, and MoveOn is getting more people engaged in the national debate over Bush's policies.

I recognize that the system is imperfect, and I wish there were a different way to level the playing field. Making contributions to ACT and the Voter Fund is the best approach I have found. I have been an advocate of campaign finance reform for almost a decade, including the legal defense of the current legislation. I recognize that every new regulation has unintended adverse consequences, but this does not mean reform should be abandoned.

Clearly, the rules need to be updated in the light of the 2004 experience. Some good proposals have already surfaced, including one from the major sponsors of the current campaign finance legislation. This bill should be supported.

Among other measures, it calls for an increase in the federal match for small contributions and would raise the spending limit for candidates who accept public funding to $75 million -- changes that would reduce the bias toward big-money donors. Free airtime for candidates is also important. This would reduce the cost of campaigns and the distorting effect of commercials.

Full disclosure and transparency are clearly beneficial. It is important that people know where financial support is coming from. I have been open about my contributions, and I welcome the debate they have sparked. In the meantime, as the debate continues, my contributions help to ensure that the money spent by those trying to reelect President Bush doesn't overwhelm the process.