06/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's the Process That Counts!

Advocates of publicly funded political campaigns are handicapped because changing the way electoral efforts are paid for is a "process" issue. Treating campaigns as a public good would reduce the relative influence of donors and increase that of non-donors. But such a system could not ensure any specific legislative outcome. The policies adopted will be those that emerge from debates in which -unlike today - political contributors are denied disproportionate influence. The outcomes of such deliberations are unknowable ahead of time.

It is this indeterminacy, I think, that is responsible for the fact that reform advocates in areas such as health care, workers rights, civil rights and the environment have not vigorously embraced "fair" elections. Many do formally support a change in the campaign financing system. But rarely is it a priority for them. Energies typically are directed to accomplishing specific legislative objectives rather than to transforming the political process itself to make it easier to achieve progressive reforms.

It is not as if reform advocates are unaware that they participate in a system that is stacked against them. Environmentalists know that they provide only a pittance compared to the political donations that come from the energy giants; the pharmaceutical sector donates far more than health care reform advocates; defenders of minority rights are only marginal sources of campaign funds. And of course no one comes close to the financial sector as a source of huge amounts of political funding. Nevertheless reformers persevere, trying to take advantage of those opportunities that are present in an admittedly unfair system.

No one epitomizes the effort to seek progressive change in an environment dominated by private wealth more than Barack Obama. As the first candidate to opt out of the presidential public funding system, Obama was a full participant in the private funding system and an extremely successful one at that. More than any previous candidate, he was able to enlist large numbers of small donors while simultaneously securing massive funding from large traditional contributors.

To date, President Obama has not endorsed the most recent attempt to achieve a public financing option for Congressional races - the Fair Elections Now Act. Despite this, Obama is a liberal reformer. This is nowhere more dramatic than in his ideas concerning the need to restructure the United States economy. Though Wall Street was the single largest source of funds to the Obama campaign, he nevertheless has emphasized the need to reduce the size and relative importance of the financial sector. In a major address on the economy delivered on April 14, Obama declared that "it is simply not sustainable to have a 21st century financial system that is governed by 20th century rules and regulations that allowed the recklessness of a few to threaten the entire economy." Very specifically, Obama seeks to reduce Wall Street's profitability, citing in this regard the fact that in a recent year 40 percent of corporate profits were received by Wall Street firms, a level that he disparagingly characterized as being "based on inflated home prices, maxed out credit cards, over-leveraged banks and overvalued assets."

Can he succeed? Perhaps, but the odds are very long against him. It is one thing to talk of the need for a new regulatory mechanism. Even Wall Street financers agree that stepped up regulations are necessary. But disagreement and opposition are likely to be severe if, as suggested, those regulations reduce the financial sector's profitability. When threatened in that way, the industry can be expected to fight back and the fight will be centered on the Congress. There, big contributors who oppose downsizing Wall Street will exercise the power that the Congressional "pay to play" system provides them. It is hard to envision that politicians dependent on financial sector donations will adopt legislation that is staunchly opposed by their most important source of campaign funding.

And so it may become clear -- both to reform advocates and to the President himself -- that the "process" issue of how campaigns are funded is too important to be disregarded. It is true that in a fully democratic system specific legislative outcomes cannot be assured. But it is also true that with the public funding of campaigns, specific interests will use the leverage they possess, by virtue of their paymaster role, to block threatening reformist legislative initiatives.

The President then may be faced with a moment of truth. With his reform legislative agenda blocked by the bias of our political process, he may out of necessity end his silence concerning the Fair Elections Now Act and support public funding of Congressional campaigns as the only way to succeed in moving the country in the direction he seeks.